Sunday, November 29, 2020

David Fleming 10 Years On

On the 29th of November 2010, my best friend, David Fleming, died.

Today, ten years on, we mark the day. We celebrate his life with a day of discussions, talks, and a showing of the film, The Sequel, which is based on David Fleming's life and his ideas.

Details here at Dark Optimism

The event starts at noon GMT on YouTube. Please join in.

David Fleming's great work, Lean Logic, which speaks directly to our times and the future we face, is now available in its entirety at Lean Logic Online.

In these troubled times Fleming's words are more important than ever. Of course he didn't predict what would happen in 2020 but he did foresee the inevitability of deep change over the coming decades and, in Lean Logic, his deep insights into social history provide us with the tools to help us survive the future.

David died in Amsterdam, his funeral held just a couple of days later. Jean and I went there, travelling on the ferry from Hull, but it was a the day of a big snowfall and airports were closed so. (We've not had such a snowfall since.) Friends and relations who tried to fly, found they couldn't. Only Lawrence Woodward made it from England to join the people David had been staying with and a couple of other Dutch friends. A small but beautiful funeral.

We returned with the memory stick that held the last version of David's life-work, Lean Logic, which, through the unstinting work of Shaun Chamberlin and many others, is now available to billions of people around the planet.

Ten years ago David's enormous an illustrious circle of friends wanted to come together to celebrate his life. A memorial service was held in Hampstead parish church, the building filled, standing room only.

I've dug out the eulogy that I gave to that congregation of lovely people:

A Service of Celebration of the Life of David Fleming.

How was it we became friends?  He looked so out of place, grey suit, tie, cuff-links, short hair, certainly the odd one out at that first Ecology Party conference at Birmingham.

He must have had something worth saying, to take the trouble to say it to the motley bunch that made up his audience.  Yes, here was someone who looked ordinary saying the extraordinary.  I can’t remember just what he said but it made an impression, made good use of words, made sense.  I needed to hear more form this extraordinary man.

But later, when we sat together, he seemed more interested in listening to me, telling me that something I had said was brilliant.  “No, no, that’s all wrong”, I thought.  “You’re the one with brilliant things to say, I’m just chipping in with the odd scrap to keep the conversation going.”  And that’s about how it’s been for over thirty years; David explaining to me a whole philosophy, a complete toolkit for our existence, while I just throw in the odd throwaway line to keep the conversation going.  And then he tells me what a brilliant thing I’ve just said and how he’ll have to re-write the whole of that chapter or some such ridiculous hyperbolic exaggeration.

I’m quite certain he treated everybody like that.  It just came naturally to him to treat others with the most enormous respect and politeness, making them feel important.  Of course, he didn’t let any of that get in the way of promoting his own ideas and dismissing any opposition with arguments of cutting logic and certitude.  Pantone 361 was the colour that had to be used for Ecology Party literature.  David fixed the exact shade of the Green Movement.  Changing the name to Green Party came much later.

What makes a friendship?  We certainly had a lot not in common. Age, appearance, dress sense, his need for blankets, my preference for a duvet, I hate porridge; he made a ritual of porridge, interrupted while he fetched the newspapers, porridge pan wrapped in a tea towel.  He bought the Times and Telegraph but bought me the Guardian, because he was my friend.  Our lives had moved 200 miles apart, a Hampstead flat, a Lincolnshire smallholding.  David read, and wrote, and listened, and talked.  I learnt to milk a cow.  His visits proved his love of gardening.  I gardened; he sat in the garden, reading and writing. In the evenings, we could listen and talk.

I don’t know what makes a friendship but once made it transcends the differences.  He may sometimes have voted Conservative.  Fine, it showed me that even Tories could be good people.  They can be one’s best friend.  Perhaps that gives hope for all relationships.  Differences need not divide if one works on the commonality.

We quietly put differences aside and concentrated on the common themes; a common appreciation of what is valuable in our culture, what is worth cherishing, worth defending; a common appreciation of the threats that must be defended against.  We enjoyed the strategic planning for that defence.  A Common Purpose.

It would start in The Wheatsheaf, a pub half way between the station and our house.  A pint of Tipsy Toad, a pint of tap water and a packet of peanuts and David would be set up for an hour’s discourse on his current theme, with me throwing in the odd line to keep the conversation going.

And, doubtless in common with many in this church today, I would gently chide him about when the book would be published, After Affluence, The Lean Economy, Lean Logic, it gradually morphed and edged towards being secured in reality.  “Good news, the snagging list is down to 98.”  Ah well, back up to 103 by the time the second pint of Tipsey Toad was drained.

But last time, last August, there really was a change in the air.  A scent of the autumn of life, harvest gathered in, job done.  Of course, we all so wish he had lived another 30 years and every year would have been wonderful, but we are where we are.  His funeral in Amsterdam at the Zorgflied Cemetery, a natural oasis in a bustling city, was a beautiful occasion, sad but beautiful, a plain coffin, his cap and glasses, notebook and pencils placed on it, the avenue of trees bending in the snow as he passed from our lives.

Our ferry slipped out of Europort and past the oil refineries.  They have come and will soon be gone, but David has left us with his philosophy, his toolkit for the future and we are grateful for the gift.  We must read it, learn it, understand it, talk about it, use and apply it to keep this beautiful world, precious, as David wanted it to be.  We are the lucky ones, fortunate to have known David.  Now we just have to do our part and ensure that his ideas live on.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Coronavirus 44 Lockdown2

Six weeks ago SAGE advised the UK Government to apply a 'circuit breaker' lockdown to get R back below 1 and slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The idea was widely supported by the scientific community. The Government ignored the advice.

Independent SAGE has produced a number of reports and statements over the recent months concerning opening of education. Sir David King gave his personal opinion that schools should not reopen until prevalence had reduced to one new case per million population per day. My blog about education is here

Recent data indicate that the 'second wave' is associated with transmission in education settings and many people are calling for schools to close, but both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Oppostion appear determined to ignore the advice.

Since the Government's abandonment of even the pretence of 'following the science' over recent weeks, it has become evident that a substantial number Conservative Party MPs and other influential people have brought pressure to bear on the Government to delay stronger measures to stop the pandemic.

The recent comments from Nadine Dorries about crystal balls and Iain Duncan-Smith, who accused the Prime Minister of "giving in to the scientific advisers", are egregious examples. We thought pre-enlightenment medievalism was a feature of certain Iranian clerics but it turns out to be rampant in British governance.

The news media, particularly BBC News, frequently give platforms to people who deny the consensus scientific position, very much akin to their handling of stories about climate change until recently, where truth must always be countered by a fringe view, just for balance.

We are today at a critical moment. We have already missed the opportunity taken by China, New Zealand, Taiwan, Vietnam and other predominantly East Asian countries to suppress and eliminate the virus before high numbers of casualties resulted. We are now ignoring the lesson from Melborne and Victoria, where the Australians have now successfully suppressed the disease.

Our proposed Lockdown 2 is a very partial affair, with schools and colleges remaining open and most people still going to work. The presentation of a trade-off between 'the economy' and death and disease would be laughable if it were not so tragically false.

Under the current arrangements the idea that all will be well again on the 2nd of December and that Christmas will be 'saved', is for the birds. We are facing the prospect of tens of thousands of more deaths and an order of magnitude greater number of people suffering disease, often for extended periods of time. Long covid will be a painful learning curve.

Responsibility for these deaths and disease lies squarely with the Prime Minister and his ministers who share collective Cabinet responsibility. But there is a wider spread of culpability. All those who have political influence, backbenchers, journalists and pundits, who have voiced their opinion against stronger measures are culpable. As are all the citizens who have opposed and even broken the rules, and also those who, while acting within the law have nevertheless behaved in a way that unnecessarily increases the risk of infection. Where governance fails, the people must themselve act for the common good.

In my blog of about ten weeks ago I set out ten simple points. I still think they are valid, and now more urgent, so here they are again:

1. It's good to avoid being judgemental of others' behaviour. Their circumstances will be unknown.

2. The virus will disappear if nobody meets anybody else.

3. #2 is not going to happen but it's a useful fact to build any decision making upon.

4. Some of us are in a position to avoid meeting many other people. Such behaviour is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

5. If the R is kept below 1 then the virus will disappear. The arithmetic dictates that.

6. It is wrong to think that the disease will be with us forever and cannot be eliminated. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy if it leads people to behave in a way that allows R to exceed 1.

7. Suppression and elimination should have been the preferred policy from January and, had it been vigorously pursued, we wouldn't be in the current mess, yet it remains the best policy option available. Best as in the one that ends with the fewest deaths and injuries. 

8. Any behaviour that risks increasing R, that is any behaviour which facilitates the virus jumping from one person to another, risks prolonging the pandemic, increasing the deaths and injuries, damaging the economy and increasing misery.

9. Keeping away from other people as much as one is able is one's civic duty.

10. But don't be judgemental about others, for you know not their circumstances.

A crystal ball is not a useful tool for pandemic policy making but John William Waterhouse gave us a fine paining.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Coronavirus 43 React

Today sees the publication of the latest Real-time Assessment of Community Transmission (REACT) Study from Imperial College.
And here is their Summary.
It doesn't make pleasant reading but neither should it come as a surprise to those who have read the previous 42 episodes of this Coronavirus Blog.
For some while now the government has given up the pretence of following the science. The advice for a 'circuit break' by SAGE in September was ignored. The Six-Week Plan from Independent SAGE was ignored. The Covid-Secure UK Plan from March fo Change was ignored. Links in my previous blog Coronavirus 40 A Plan.
Government, many politicians and signifacant sections of the popular news media have not learnt the lessons of the spring, still do not understand the true nature of exponential growth and continue to downplay the dangers of the pandemic.
Chris Giles, Economics Editor at the Financial Times yesterday produced his latest estimate of the excess deaths that have resulted for the disease: 67,500.
Scientists from University College London and elsewhere have launched a dashboard, updated in real time, that brings together covid related data, something that should have been created months ago by government. Data are the basis for information and an informed public is vital.
We will watch the death toll mount, with tens of thousands of further avoidable deaths over the coming weeks.

What to do? To minimise further deaths and suffering from long covid we need to stop the virus spreading. To do that people must stop moving about and stop meeting. We need a national lockdown even more stringent than that in the Spring. The idea of 'balancing' covid restrictions against harming the economy is nonsense. Dead people don't contribute to the economy, ill people are a drain on the economy. Those who fail to follow the scientists' advice bear a heavy responsibility for the death and suffering we will be witnessing.
It's up to each and every one of us.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Coronavirus 42 A Picture

Looking at covid is like seeing light from a distant star. What we're seeing now is the result of events a month ago. Almost all the people who are going to die from covid over the next month have already been infected. New UK reported infections are running at about 20,000 per day, the actual number of new infections may be three or four times as many. The numbers are doubling about every two weeks, implying exponential growth with the R in the region of 1.3. We still don't have an accurate figure for the infection fatality rate; it varies greatly with age, a lot less than 1% for the young but perhaps 10% for the over 80s. Something a little under 1% is a reasonable estimate of the average. You can do the arithmetic as well as I can to make a guess as to how many thousands will die over the next few weeks. And that's just those who are already infected, not counting those who will catch the disease in the coming days and weeks. The debilitations of long covid may affect perhaps ten times as many as die.

All this could have been avoided had the government acted promptly on the advice from the scientists. Further deaths could be avoided if the government acted on the advice now, but it is clear that they have little such intention, at least until other policies have been tried and have been shown, by the body count, to have failed.

Among the leaders of the scientific opinion is Sir David King. His frustration at seeing the government ignore the science early in the pandemic led him to convene Independent SAGE. This is a group of leading experts in their fields who work to parallel the government's own SAGE group, but do so in an open and transparent way, where ideas can be reviewed, challenged and improved upon in the true manner of science. They have published a seriies of reports making public their findings and have held weekly briefings that are publicly open and accessible. 

Disastrously, the work of IndieSAGE seems to have been completely ignored by the government. It has also been largely ignored by BBC News so a goodly proportion of the public are still unaware of its recommendations.

Sir David King, now in his 80s, has led a stellar scientific career and served as the government's Chief Scientific Adviser. But he will be the first to say that the work of Indie SAGE is the collaberation of a first class team of scientists who are working to mitigate the disaster we are facing. At last Friday's Indie SAGE briefing, Sir David, as he has done each week, ended the session with a few words of summary. This week I was particularly struck by a moment of deep sadness engraved on his face. Perhaps it was the realisation that his team had the answers, had developed a plan that would give the nation the best possible outcome, and yet the government would not listen; thousands more avoidable deaths would ensue.

What could I do, beyond staying at home, as I have done pretty much since March, so as to minimise the risk of contributing to the spread of the virus? I got my paints out and made this sketch, based on a screenshot from the YouTube feed,  to honour Sir David and draw attention to the work of his team. Thank you to all of Independent SAGE for attempting to be part of the solution.

Professor Sir David King FRS.
Chair of Independent SAGE
Oil on canvas 40 x 46 cm

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Coronavirus 41 Education

Schools, colleges and universities were closed in March as part of the measures to reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The Reproduction number, R, was successfully reduced to below 1 and, had that situation continued, the disease would have been suppressed and eliminated. But lockdown, always leaky, was lifted too soon, people were allowed to travel into Britain without testing and quarantine, the government encouraged people to go back to work and even bribed them with £10 off the price of meals to go to the pub.
Despite warnings from Sir David King and Independent SAGE that schools should not be reopened until community prevalence was below about one new case per day per million population, it was judged politically expedient to reopen schools and universities in September, irrespective of the virus's spread. New case numbers were running at about two orders of magnitude greater than Sir David had judged dangerous. The R went above 1 again, exponential growth setting in once more and leading to an inevitable but wholy avoidable, disease burden and fatalities. Now there is much talk, and some action, about renewed restrictions, but keeping schools open is regarded by many as a priority.
The Guardian carries an important article by Amelia Hill launching a series about the effects of the pandemic on the younger generation, the Covid Generation. What has become abundantly clear is that schools provide far more than education. They are the central hub of a support network providing care and protection to vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

Schools are what they are, do what they do, as a result of some 150 years of evolution, but there has been little strategic thinking to check whether they are carrying out their tasks efficiently and effectively. Are schools really fit for purpose? What is their purpose?
Take, for instance, free school meals, given to children whose parents and carers fall below some arbitrary threshold of poverty, but not to those the other side of the threshold. If the intention of government (and it would be a fine intention) is to improve the nutrtional health of the nation's children, then free school meals is a crude and inefficient tool. Covid (and a footballer's campaign) has highlighted that children need to eat when schools are closed. Other, better, ways to ensure all well fed are available.
Children need the company of their peers, we are told. If social interaction with other children is the aim then clubs and activities designed to optimise such interaction would deliver the goal better than sitting 30 children, who may not even like many of each other, in a room together.
Schools provide opportunities to identify problems in the home and a refuge for children not being looked after well. A social care system whose primary function was to perform this role would be better placed than schools staffed by teachers who are paid to teach not by social workers for whom all round care is their profession.
Schools teach. By definition. There's been some tinkering around the edges but the basic model of schools has not changed in a century and more. A large number of children are crowded into a room and a teacher engages them in more or less comman tasks. The children emerge taught. Supposedly.
Many other models of education have been tried, tested and found workable and from when the pandemic first emerged it should have been obvious that a model that did not not involve 30 children being sat in a room together for five hours a day was going to be needed. There should have been, in February, a massive effort to put all education programming on broadcast television with online back-up, to enable the school curriculums to be followed. Every child should have been provided with computer and internet connection adequate for the task. Face to face tutorial type meetings and group activities could have been part of the programme, as and when disease prevalence allowed. Existing school buildings could be repurposed in their new role as education hubs, used part time by the children and for other community purposes.
Of course the cost of building a distance learning centred education system would be considerable, but in the context of how much is being spent on other sectors of the economy, it would be manageable. And what if (when) the virus dissappears? Well, we would have created a 'world beating' education system fit for future generations. It will not be wasted.
Ah but, you say, if children did a large part of their education at home instead of going to school how are parents and carers going to go out to work?  Oh, I say, so that's the real purpose of schools; it is a baby-sitting service to enable the workers to go out to work. And that leads us down the path to a restructuring of society, of the place of work and of child care and family and community life. It's a big subjet so I'll leave that for another blog, another time.
Meanwhile, here's a thought. The Open University was established in 1969. In half a century in the future will people look back to the time when the Open School was established?
In May Tim Brighouse and Bob Moon wrote in the Guardian:
Fifty years ago, despite formidable detractors, Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee pushed through the creation of an Open University. Look at the proud success that has been. Now we need to do the same in creating an Open School. Such an institution, even if born of a crisis, could play a major role in raising educational standards for decades to come.
Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC thought it a good idea. He too wrote about it. More recently, Ros Morpeth & Anne Nicholls have also made the case for an Open School.
Let's make it so.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Coronavirus 40 A Plan

The littany of failure from the start of the year has been well rehersed, but we are now where we are and we need a plan that will avoid the upcoming catastrophe.

Fortunately the scientists of Independent SAGE, under the chairmanship of Sir David King, retired government Chief Scientific Officer, have come up with a plan. And it is a plan that would deliver the best outcome available.

Here it is.

Unfortunately, the UK government is determined to ignore it so the upcoming catastrophe is unlikely to be averted.

"Six week plan to get COVID-19 cases down and rebuild the public health and social scaffolding we need to ease restrictions safely"

An effective Find Test Track Isolate Support system is central to the plan.
In the absence of good governance it behoves each and every one of us to adopt the spirit of the Indie SAGE plan and do our best to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
This may be a good moment to revisit the 10-point suggestion I posted in mid August. It is here. 

UPDATE 28th October 2020

Building on the advice of SAGE and Independent SAGE, a more detailed plan has been produced: Covid-Secure UK

P.S. Note to the future: If it turns out that Covid-19 related deaths increase it will because the government and the population at large failed to follow this plan or anything similar in a timely manner. The burden of responsibility will have fallen on those who did not heed this warning.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Coronavirus 39 Circuit Break

A circuit break is the wrong analogy.

Ciruit breakers break the circuit, stopping the current instantaneously and making the system safe. That might be the right anaolgy if we created a situation where the virus could not jump from person to person. As I pointed out in Coronavirus 37 the virus will disappear if nobody meets anybody else. But as I also pointed out, that's not going to happen. Even in the stricktest lockdown some people still go to work.

A better analogy is adding a resitor, impeding the current, impeding the flow of the virus through the population. The greater the impedance the quicker the all important R value will be reduced, exponential growth ended and the road to suppression and elimination regained.

The lockdown proposed by SAGE three weeks ago and supported by Keir Starmer yesterday and opposed just now by the Prime Minister as he listens to the large number of Tory MPs who want fewer restriction, and thus less impedence to the viral spread, will not be sufficient, however it is branded. Two or three weeks, is just not a long enough time to break the circuit.

We need to do more and do it faster if the catastrophe that the scientists warn of is to be avoided. Each of us must judge what we can do to avoid passing the virus on. As the raindrop said "I didn't cause the flood". Each of us has our own role to play in being part of the solution rather than the part of the problem.

While the politicians dilly-dally need to have our own #PeoplesLockdown.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Coronavirus 38 Arts episode

SARS-CoV-2 is taking its toll on the arts and our cultural heritage.
The wise folk are staying at home, the cultural institutions have lost income and the politicians are allowing the pandemic to decimate the arts.
The Royal Academy, facing its financial implosion, is considering selling its Michelangelo, Taddei Tondo, as a way to make up the shortfall and thereby avoid making 150 staff redundant.

Taddei Tondo or The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John by Michelangelo 
Now we learn that the Royal Opera House is to sell its David Hockney portrait of the late Sir David Webster, who ran the opera house from 1945 to 1970.

Portrait of Sir David Webster by David Hockney, 1971.
Now obviously the art market is bonkers, a lot of money sloshing about looking for somewhere to be invested in that which might be a safe store of value, but that's another story. The urgent issue is that great works of art, currently available to the general public (at least those who go to the opera or the RA) risk disappearing into a rich man's den or a bank's vault. That would be a loss to our culture.
It need not be so.The government, on behalf of the nation, could purchase these works and leave them hanging where they are for public benefit. Using its ability to borrow money at today's record low interest rates, and noting that the cash would enter the economy through the spending of institutions such as the Royal Opera House and the Royal Academy on their wage bills, there would be no net cost to the economy.
Other institutions, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, are looking to cut their costs by making reduncancies, with the accompanying inevitable loss of the public service for culture. In a statement the V&A say "With the furlough scheme now coming to an end, we are sadly in a position where our commercial and charitable revenue sources are still heavily reduced and other options to cover our costs are exhausted. We are left now with no choice but to review our operations and reduce the scale of our organisation overall, as part of ongoing efforts to reduce costs by at least £10m annually going forwards."
There is a political choice. Do we allow the transfer of public art into private hands or do we maintain the value of our publicly available cultural capital? Do we close down our museum services, allowing the pandemic to deprive us of our cultural heritage, or do we invest to limit the virus's damage?
As Bendor Grosvenor put it:
"Our museums must now pay the price for Sunak’s focus only on ‘viable business’. Needless cultural destruction."
Further reading:
Jonathan Jones, The $80m Botticelli: could its auction trigger a Covid-rescue fire sale?
Vanessa Thorpe, Royal Opera House to sell off David Hockney painting in bid to stay afloat

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Apple Day

One of my best days of each year is the day I harvest the bulk of our apples. We have about three dozen trees of about three dozen varieties almost all of which are never seen in the shops.  The early eaters are ready in August but I pick the bulk in late September. We slice and dry a variety that doesn't keep well and the resulting rings are stored in old sweet jars where they would keep for ever or until we eat them, whichever is the sooner.

Some we give away at the gate. It's suprising how reluctant people are to pick up free food. 

Those we want to keep, the best ones, we put in an old, non-working, freezer. It's a tall one with lots of deep drawers. None of that faffing about with wrapping each apple or making sure they don't touch, they just get piled in till the draw if full. Then shut the door tight and don't open it until apples are wanted. Maybe it's the increaed CO2 concentration or something like that in a sealed container that slows down rotting, but whatever, we have as many apples as we can eat through to Easter. And by then it's quite nice to eat something else for a while. A few turn mouldy, but no matter, we chuck them out to the great recycling system of compost.

Of course our trees produce far more apples that we can possibly eat. The bulk of our harvest goes to the local cider maker. By and by, in return, we get a bit of cider. It's a good system, every village should have one. I suppose once upon a time they did.

This afternoon, a van-load of apples delivered, I got chatting to the guy who makes the cider. His is a small part time business, with a production of a few tens of thousands of litres, mostly sold locally. Sales, of course, are drastically down this year with the local pubs closed, but he's cheerful enough. Cider keeps well, unlike draught beer.

He also makes apple juice, over 60,000 bottles per year. Or he did. But not any more. Brexit has put a stop to that rather lucrative side to his enterprise. For the juice making he used to get, very cheaply, the apples that were rejected by the company that graded and packed apples for the supermarkets. Perfectly good apples that were somehow deemed not to be quite the correct size, shape, colour or whatever to please the supermarkets' idea of what their customers want. Waste not want not, these apples are perfect for juicing.

What's Brexit got to do with it? Well, the company that does the grading and packing is big, international, and doesn't care where it operates from so long as the business environment is good there. That does not include post-Brexit UK, so they've upped sticks and moved to the Netherlands. All that grading and packing that used to happen in Lincolnshire now gets done near Rotterdam and the rejects stay there. I hope the Dutch make good use of them. There are consequences not just for our local apple juice maker. Those 60,000 bottles of juice no longer produced means cancellations of orders for 60,000 glass bottles, made in Leeds, 60,000 labels printed in Skegness, cardboard boxes from Louth and 60,000 plastic bottle tops made, I forget where. Repeat every year. Remind me, what was Brexit for?

Anyway, here's what I took down the road this afternoon.

My favourite is the Striped Beefing, a variety found as a chance seedling in 1794 by George Lindsey, nurseryman, in the garden of William Crowe of Lakenham Norwich. It's a cooking apple but mellows to an eater by the new year. They are big apples. Too big for supermarkets.

Just in case you were wondering wether it matters where the reject apples are turned into juice, after all the Netherland isn't far away and we can import it from there, just remember there will be an 18% tariff imposed on imported apple juice, thanks to Brexit, the disaster that keeps taking.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The New Fascism 2

 As I wrote in my blog a couple of week agoThe New Fascism will not be like the old version of the 1930s. Yesterday there was another rally in Trafalgar Square, ostensibly protesting against actions taken by the UK Government to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, but attracting a curious assortment of people, united by their rejection of science and who risk becoming sucked into the QAnon cult.

Jamie Doward has an excellent piece in The Observer, so read his words rather than mine.

Not all the Trafalgar Square protesters would regard themselves on the far right but the one thing that unifies these disparate people is their rejection of science. This makes the words of Graham Lawton, writing in New Scientist, so apposite.

You may find it behind a paywall (go on, subscribe to the NS, it's good) but here is Lawton's concluding remark:

"Believe me, I don’t want to give these people the oxygen of publicity or stoke a counter-conspiracy theory that fervidly imagines QAnon wields greater power than it actually does. But I think it is time that a wider audience was made aware of just how dangerously influential this is becoming. QAnon believers aren’t mildly eccentric flat-Earthers or shills for the fossil fuel industry. They are fighting a war against reality. That is one existential battle you really don’t want to lose."

And here are some words from somebody who is not so much a science writer but would, I'm sure, agree with Doward and Lawton, and has himself deep knowledge of both COVID-19 and fascism.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Global Biodiversity Outlook

Over the last few days three significant reports, each making grim reading. have been published. The shortest, at just 12 pages, is The Lost Decade for Nature, from the RSPB. Then we have the 83 page Living Planet Report 2020 from WWF and the Zoological Society of London. Today we got the big one from the United Nations, 212 pages of The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5). And many of us watched Extinction: The Facts, a BBC TV programme introduced by David Attenborough.

The 6th Mass Extinction got off to a slow and gradual start during the Holocene with our hunter ancestors eating their way through the megafauna, the mammoths, aurochs and such like, and modifying the landscape with their fire and axes. 

The pace of change hotted up in recent centuries, the dodo and passenger pigeon disappearing before anyone realised what was happening.

But now, firmly in the Anthropocene, the rate of extinction has accelerated to a level never seen before on the planet, save perhaps when the Cretaceous meteorite impacted. And as this week's reports show, we cannot plead ignorance. We know what is happening, we know why it is happening and we know that it is all down to our behaviour.

GBO-5 begins thus:

"Humanity stands at a crossroads with regard to the legacy it leaves to future generations. Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, and the pressures driving this decline are intensifying. None of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be fully met, in turn threatening the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and undermining efforts to address climate change."

What is abundantly clear is that the efforts by governments the world over have failed. Of course we need to tell our governments to try harder, to do more, to act more urgently, but it is not enough to just blame governments. That is scapegoating. It is our personal and individual behaviour that cumulatively is the problem. We act directly on the biosphere and indirectly by creating the political climate in which governments are empowered.

In my recent blog on a different topic, Coronavirus 37, I made the point "It's good to avoid being judgemental of others' behaviour. Their circumstances will be unknown." but each of us needs urgently to look at the choices we are able to make and decide whether we are part of the problem or part of the solution, whether we want to be part of the problem or part of the solution, and what we are going to do about it. 

Today, before it is too late.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

The New Fascism

The New Fascism will not be like the old version of the 1930s.

Many people are noting the parallels between current developments and the past horrors but the similarities only go so far. While we must learn the lessons of history, history does not actually repeat itself. Not quite.

The recent demonstration in Trafalgar Square brought together a motley collection of people ostensibly objecting to the restrictions designed to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus but a common theme amongst them was the rejection of science, whether it was concerning vaccinations, 5G, chemtrails or the climate emergency. The demonstration provided a safe place for people to unfurl the flag of the British Union of Fascists, not seen on London streets since the 1930s.

That organisation has been resurrected under the name of New British Union with the motto "Restoring Faith in Fascism" and uses that flash in a circle symbol used by 
Oswald Mosley's and banned in Germany, France and many other countries.

While the immediate focus of attention may have been downplaying the pandemic notwithstanding its tens of thousands of avoidable deaths, it is the downplaying of the risks of global heating that have the potential to make this New Fascism far worse than anything that happened in the mid 20th century.

There is a clear intention to provide a hostile environment for immigrants, to reject accommodation of refugees, but sea level rise and climate change threaten unprecedented mass migrations. Nationalism, short term self-interest and hostility towards empathy for and cooperation with others are the hall-marks of the New Fascism but are the exact opposite of what is required to mitigate the climate emergency. Millions, perhaps billions, of lives will be put in jeopardy if the ideas of these people are allowed to prosper and spread.

The New Fascism will not look like the old sort, but it is far more dangerous. The UK Government is taking us down that road as quickly as it judges it can get away with.

Three articles this week address the issue:

George Monbiot in the Guardian

55 Tufton Street may seem an unlikely HQ for The New Fascism but remember, it does not look like the fascism we were familiar with.

Here's why it is in the news just now.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Coronavirus 37

 1. It's good to avoid being judgemental of others' behaviour. Their circumstances will be unknown.

2. The virus will disappear if nobody meets anybody else.

3. #2 is not going to happen but it's a useful fact to build any decision making upon.

4. Some of us are in a position to avoid meeting many other people. Such behaviour is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

5. If the R is kept below 1 then the virus will disappear. The arithmetic dictates that.

6. It is wrong to think that the disease will be with us forever and cannot be eliminated. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy if it leads people to behave in a way that allows R to exceed 1.

7. Suppression and elimination should have been the preferred policy from January and, had it been vigorously pursued, we wouldn't be in the current mess, yet it remains the best policy option available. Best as in the one that ends with the fewest deaths and injuries. 

8. Any behaviour that risks increasing R, that is any behaviour which facilitates the virus jumping from one person to another, risks prolonging the pandemic, increasing the deaths and injuries, damaging the economy and increasing misery.

9. Keeping away from other people as much as one is able is one's civic duty.

10. But don't be judgemental about others, for you know not their circumstances.


A NARROW girdle of rough stones and crags,
A rude and natural causeway, interposed
Between the water and a winding slope
Of copse and thicket, leaves the eastern shore
Of Grasmere safe in its own privacy:
And there myself and two beloved Friends,
One calm September morning, ere the mist
Had altogether yielded to the sun,
Sauntered on this retired and difficult way.
----Ill suits the road with one in haste; but we
Played with our time; and, as we strolled along,
It was our occupation to observe
Such objects as the waves had tossed ashore--
Feather, or leaf, or weed, or withered bough,
Each on the other heaped, along the line
Of the dry wreck. And, in our vacant mood,
Not seldom did we stop to watch some tuft
Of dandelion seed or thistle's beard,
That skimmed the surface of the dead calm lake,
Suddenly halting now--a lifeless stand!
And starting off again with freak as sudden;
In all its sportive wanderings, all the while,
Making report of an invisible breeze
That was its wings, its chariot, and its horse,
Its playmate, rather say, its moving soul.
--And often, trifling with a privilege
Alike indulged to all, we paused, one now,
And now the other, to point out, perchance
To pluck, some flower or water-weed, too fair
Either to be divided from the place
On which it grew, or to be left alone
To its own beauty. Many such there are,
Fair ferns and flowers, and chiefly that tall fern,
So stately, of the queen Osmunda named;
Plant lovelier, in its own retired abode
On Grasmere's beach, than Naiad by the side
Of Grecian brook, or Lady of the Mere,
Sole-sitting by the shores of old romance.
--So fared we that bright morning: from the fields
Meanwhile, a noise was heard, the busy mirth
Of reapers, men and women, boys and girls.
Delighted much to listen to those sounds,
And feeding thus our fancies, we advanced
Along the indented shore; when suddenly,
Through a thin veil of glittering haze was seen
Before us, on a point of jutting land,
The tall and upright figure of a Man
Attired in peasant's garb, who stood alone,
Angling beside the margin of the lake.
"Improvident and reckless," we exclaimed,
"The Man must be, who thus can lose a day
Of the mid harvest, when the labourer's hire
Is ample, and some little might be stored
Wherewith to cheer him in the winter time."
Thus talking of that Peasant, we approached
Close to the spot where with his rod and line
He stood alone; whereat he turned his head
To greet us--and we saw a Mam worn down
By sickness, gaunt and lean, with sunken cheeks
And wasted limbs, his legs so long and lean
That for my single self I looked at them,
Forgetful of the body they sustained.--
Too weak to labour in the harvest field,
The Man was using his best skill to gain
A pittance from the dead unfeeling lake
That knew not of his wants. I will not say
What thoughts immediately were ours, nor how
The happy idleness of that sweet morn,
With all its lovely images, was changed
To serious musing and to self-reproach.
Nor did we fail to see within ourselves
What need there is to be reserved in speech,
And temper all our thoughts with charity.
--Therefore, unwilling to forget that day,
My Friend, Myself, and She who then received
The same admonishment, have called the place
By a memorial name, uncouth indeed
As e'er by mariner was given to bay
Or foreland, on a new-discovered coast;
And POINT RASH-JUDGMENT is the name it bears.

The character of the eastern shore of Grasmere lake is quite changed, since these verses were written, by the public road being carried along its side. The friends spoken of were Coleridge and my Sister, and the facts occurred strictly as recorded. William Wordworth.


Thursday, August 13, 2020

Exams, What Are They Good For?

 Abolutely Nothing!

The pandemic has stimulated opportunities to re-assess several aspects of what were our normal lives and perhaps now we should
 take a deep look at what the purposes of school exams are and whether those purposes might be better served by other means.

Exams test the ability to pass exams. For sure there are corellations between exam passing ability and some other abilities but the actual skills involved, memorising a lot of information and being able to use that information in an ordered way to present an argument in a very limited time with no opportunity to check the veracity of the memorised information, is a skill that is required in precisely no situation in the rest of our lives.

It is unlikely that a measurement of this skill is a good predictor of either the ability to benefit from a university education or that it is a skill that ensures the productivity of an employee.

We have exams because, from the point of view of the employer or univerity, they are a cheap and easy metric, which, if everybody else is doing the same and nobody is thinking too hard about it, we can just carry on with and few folk complain.

Until something goes wrong. 

This year there were no exams so the nation has fallen upon pretend exams and teachers' guesses from many months earlier. Unsurprisingly, there is disquiet.

This is a good moment to look at what we want and how best to achieve it. There appear to be three broad objectives:

1. To provide incentive and motivation for students to stury diligently.

2. To allocate university and college places to the students who will benefit most from courses.

3. To help employers recruit the people best suited to the jobs to be done.

To expect that a single metric, supplied by somebody else, could fulfill all three objectives is lazy, wishful and fanciful thinking. Our education system should be smarter than this.

Aspasia, who probably never took any exams.

The Tory Government abandoned decades of gradual shift towards continuous assesment of school students wherby course work and end of module tests reduced the emphasis on final exams. This had been a progressive development, making results better matched to the world outside. The Government's step back to the old system has now unravelled.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Coronavirus 36

Today's UK Covid deaths reported by the government is 186, the highest for 10 days, bringing the last 7 day average to 121 per day.

We are still uncertain about the infection fatality rate (IFR) but it seems likely to be between 0.5 and 1%.

At 1% a daily death count around 120 implies that three or so weeks ago the number of new infections must have been running at around 12000. Double that for an IFR of 0.5%.

The number of new cases being reported by the government around early June was between 1500 and 2000, perhaps an order of magnitude lower that the figure implied by the recent death rate.

Now we've known all along that the reported case numbers are too low - not all get tested, many are asymptomatic, but an order of magnitude too low? That's quite some under-reporting.

Earlier this week the government reported that 5.4% of the population were found to be with antibodies, the implication being that these people had had the disease.
Reported cases stand at just over 300,000.
5.4% of the population is about 3.5 million. So that's an order of magnitude greater than the reported number of cases.
That really is quite some under-reporting.

Meanwhile the number of daily COVID deaths in New Zealand continues to average zero. But they did things differently there, The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, followed the advice of Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington.

Jacinda Ardern thought taking his advice was worth a punt as it avoided people dying, in stark contrast to the UK's Prime Minister's idea of 'taking it on the chin', which has cost over 65,000 lives so far and a likelihood that the pandemic will be with us for many months to come with the inevitable daily death toll.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Coronavirus 35

Of course the 2m rule was always a bit silly. If you are on the upwind side 1m is fine. But if you are the downwind person, make it 10 metres. It is a political rather than scientific rule, politics being the art of the possible, science being the endeavour to constrain uncertainty.

In some nations, notably New Zealand and Vietnam, the policy from the outset was to prevent all deaths. The UK Government set out on a very different course with its 'taking it on the chin', 'herd immunity', 'flattening the curve', 'protecting the NHS'. The result has been catastrophic.

Whether there is a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lot more deaths follow or whether the outbreak continues its decline and the rate of that decline, depends on our behaviour, each and every one of us. Our actions will cause or save more deaths.  Anything that allows an increases in the spread of the virus results in more deaths. This is the vital fact that should confront every person encouraging easing of lockdown policy and relaxing their personal actions.

Today, in the face of the UK Government's imminent likely further easing of restrictions Independent SAGE has released this statement:

In the absence of a scientific basis for Government policy, we the people have to act on the basis of the science, rather than according to the Government's advice. Our individual actions will determine whether the pandemic is long and drawn out with many more deaths and injuries, or whether the virus is swiftly eliminated.

It is a heavy responsibility that cannot be left to government but must be born by us, each and every one of us.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Coronavirus 34

New Zealand's success in eliminating COVID-19 is significant. It shows that Jacinda Ardern's determination to make the prevention of any deaths the highest priority was correct. It worked. And the example of Vietnam shows that it was not being a remote island with a small population of low density and high wealth that was the significant factor.

But the really important lesson is that, given the right policies, the pandemic will end. I discussed earlier how the R value allows us to see just how rapidly the virus dies out and how many people die before that happens. The UK's failure has been to have the wrong goals: 'smooth the curve', 'save the NHS', 'avoid a second peak'. The goal should have been, right from the start but also from today, to prevent all deaths.

Yet today we still have the idea that the disease will be with us for a long time, 'until we get a vaccine', and the task is to 'manage the outbreak so the health services are not overwhelmed'. This is the attitude that has already cost over 60,000 lives and will cost many more if it persists. 

The New Zealand lesson is that suppression, isolation and elimination works. We have lost three months and destroyed so many lives but the economists' water under the bridge or sunk costs ideas apply here. We are where we are. Never mind the past, we have to put in place the right policies now. That way lives are saved and the disease will pass.

Currently the UK government seems determined to do the opposite. The consequence will be that more people will die and the disease will persist indefinitely. The Prime Minister and his government and advisers are culpable.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Coronavirus 33

Proof is a useful concept in formal logic and mathematics but has no place in science*, which is always provisional. Science seeks to describe and understand phenomena but descriptions and understandings are always subject to improvement. Scientists are always wrong but they share their findings so their work can be criticised and improved

It was government policy to keep their Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advice secret. 

The minutes of SAGE meetings and supporting documentation (scientific data and analysis used to inform SAGE discussions) are typically published at the conclusion of the relevant emergency. - wrote the Government.

That really stops it being science as it is not open to peer review and improvement, an essential part of the scientific method. Now that the minutes of some SAGE meetings have been published, there will be much scrutiny of any advice that may, with hindsight, be demonstrated to have been wrong, and the Government and its supporters will doubtless reinforce their message that the Government followed the science. This was their Big Lie.

Cherry-picking advice from their chosen scientists, whose work was undisclosed and not subject to peer review, is not within the scientific method.

And importantly, as Anthony Costello of The Independent SAGE points out "The minutes of SAGE meetings before the fateful March 12 press briefing have not been released." 

The 60,000 and more deaths so far represent a Government failure so don't blame scientists.

Karl Popper

*Proof has a rather different meaning and usage in the context of courts of law and this varies with jurisdiction, England and Scotland having differences. Bakers using yeast depend on proving their product too, but that is something else. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Coronavirus 32

1. COVID-19 Test and Trace is a good thing.
2. It should have begun in late January
3. The abandonment of any attempt on 12th March was a National Disaster
4. Starting today distracts from Dominic Cummings. Well that's handy.

During yesterday's briefing at which we were introduced to Dido Harding, my wife asked "How do you get to be a baroness?". "Marry a baron I suppose", I answered cynically, "or do something really useful". I added, generously. I looked her up. Turns out there's a third way, choose your grandfather well.  What follows is informed by Wikipedia.

Diana Mary "Dido" Harding, Baroness Harding of Winscombe is the daughter of Lord Harding, and the granddaughter of Field Marshal John Harding, 1st Baron Harding of Petherton, who commanded the Desert Rats in World War II. She was raised on the family pig farm in Dorset. She graduated from the University of Oxford in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, where she studied alongside David Cameron.

Her business career involved being marketing director at Thomas Cook Group (they ceased trading last year) and commercial director at Woolworths Group (remember Woolies?). She then joined Tesco as international support director (Tesco pulled out of the USA in 2013).

It was her job at TalkTalk that brought her to public attention. In October 2015, TalkTalk experienced a "significant and sustained cyber-attack", during which personal and banking details of up to four million customers is thought to have been accessed. City A.M. described her responses as "naive", noting that early on when asked if the affected customer data was encrypted or not, she replied: "The awful truth is that I don’t know". Her "inflexible line" on termination fees was also criticised. Marketing ran a headline, "TalkTalk boss Dido Harding's utter ignorance is a lesson to us all". The Evening Standard noted that "It has been a tough week for TalkTalk boss Dido Harding, facing complaints from customers and calls for her head." The company admitted the hack had cost it £60 million and lost it 95,000 customers.

In February 2017, Harding announced she would stand down after seven years as CEO of TalkTalk in May 2017, to focus more on her public service activities. In October of that year she was appointed chair of NHS Improvement, which is responsible for overseeing all NHS hospitals, comprising foundation trusts and NHS trusts, as well as independent providers that provide NHS-funded care.

In January 2018 Harding, herself a racehorse owner and rider, became a member of the Jockey Club's Board of Stewards, which runs many of British horse-racing's most popular events, including the Cheltenham Festival.

What? I hear you scream. Yes, that's right, the Cheltenham Festival was one of the key turning points in this government's abject failure to control the pandemic, ensuring we would be like the USA rather than like New Zealand. In May 2020, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that Harding was to be put in charge of the "Track, Test and Trace" effort as part of the UK government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course it is just a coincidence that she has a connection with the decision not to cancel Cheltenham. And it is just a coincidence that the NHS was found to be woefully under-equipped to deal with a pandemic while on Harding's watch as chair of NHS Improvement.

I'd love to know what Harding's view, as a Jockey Club board member and chair of NHS Improvement, was on the decision to allow the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead,

Anyway, they say poachers make the best gamekeepers.

The UK Government, having first tried all the wrong policies, has at last got round to promoting the correct action. Our job is to make sure that Test and Trace works.