Alcohol & Anxiety

Having grown up in a drinking culture, I do enjoy the occasional drink or three. Drinking allows people to weaken the social rules we have for a few hours to lubricate social interactions and have some fun. Drinking is an appealing way of spending time, to celebrate life  rather than spend too much time contemplating the bleakness of existence. It has been society’s way of escaping the sheer craziness of human life on planet Earth.

Drinking is an escape from the social norms, unfortunately it has consequences. Those whom do not have a pleasant existence can overly turn to alcohol as the escape becomes addictive.

When I was a much more anxious person, I did enjoy the escape into drinking as this allowed me to be a normal person, unconstrained by the ties of anxiety. As an anxious person it probably took an additional pint to achieve that state of relaxation, free from inhibition that the non-anxious could do with fewer or even no alcohol. I was fortunate to never rely on alcohol to function, which alcoholics do. However, I quite often needed to drink to actually enjoy social interaction. In Britain this kind of works as much larger social functions generally include availability of alcohol.

Now that I am less anxious, I don’t feel that need to gain the effects of alcohol to enjoy socialising in large groups, though alcohol does increase the enjoyment, it just adds emphasis to enjoying socialising.

I’m sure everyone, whether they suffer from mental illness or not has that nervousness about going across to chat to the pretty girl. Alcohol helps us say ‘Why not, it’s hugely unlikely that they will humiliate me’, which I think is the fear everyone has. Alcohol has been allowing people to get together and form relationships for centuries. The thing about anxiety is that the anxious have this fear with everyone,they fear social interactions with everyone whether they are attractive or not. The normal social rule of anxiety about speaking to attractive women is simply exaggerated to the point where normal social function becomes a huge strain.

Overcoming anxiety is a journey, much like a night in town where the effects of alcohol get to the point of insobriety where we can enjoy ourselves fully, but still function. Such a state has a cost in the morning! The difference is the longer timescale and leading to a more permanent non-anxious state. For me, way back when the only time I felt  happy was when I was drunk. As I overcame anxiety i started to have moments of happiness or just feeling relaxed without drink. Over time the frequency and length of these spells increased. Happiness is never a permanent state, but a state of feeling relaxed within oneself increases in time until it is the majority of the time and eventually becomes the normal state. Eventually you no longer fear waking up in the morning feeling anxious. I used to have the idea that being happy always meant that the depression and anxiety would always be the worse afterwards, much like a hangover. However there does not need to be a hangover, you can just carry on the next day being not anxious. i still go ‘wow’ sometimes/

This state of relaxed normality is still a fairly new concept for me, but one I gather that most people have always had. It is kind of like when getting drunk for the first time and realising you can do this again and again. Gaining more experience of not being anxious is great and so enabling and having a few beers is even more enjoyable. It’s the feeling of being able to escape without a constant desire to escape.

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In Defense of Free Markets

Last week there was the Labour party conference and their leaders speech. Jeremy Corbyn spoke about his policies of re-nationalising the railways and capping rents. These are sensible pragmatic policies in my view, which are also popular. The government response was Theresa May stating that free markets are the best way to deliver economic growth, and that she should return to winning arguments for free markets as she thought that her party had already won this argument.

This is an example of what I despise about party politics. The meaningless soundbite triumphing over the deeper truths. It has been argued that this is due to people receiving news via a 144 character tweet or a headline. So, that people don’t read deeper to uncover what is more accurately going on.

I agree with Theresa May on the first point that free markets are the best way of delivering economic growth. However she then muddies this statements that distort the truth. The Tories never won the argument for free markets, instead they created a political bubble for a market fundamentalism, where simply injecting elements of free markets into unfree markets will produce economic growth. This doesn’t work, you either have free markets or unfree ones. Regulating markets to make them more free is a good thing, but arbitrary market elements can make markets less free, which is what Tory governments have implemented. Which is why the UK housing and  railway markets are not free and in crisis.

So what is a free market? There are many definitions and it is a much abused phrase as it means different things to different people. My definition is that a free market is one where there is an interplay between producers and consumers, competition between providers, where forces pushing price up and down achieve balance, where supply and demand achieve a sustainable balance. A free market isn’t influenced by external actors.

For example, baker shops. A baker shop provides a service, making bread and cakes and delivers a profit for the owners of the business sufficient that they are better off continuing to run the business rather than seek easier money elsewhere. The bakers shop has costs: maintenance of the premises, maintenance of equipment, staff costs and ingredient costs. So must work out the price by adding to the cost of making a loaf of bread a sufficient margin to sustain the business. There will be other baker shops they compete. If costs rise too much people either buy less bakery products or make their own bread. If price is too low, then the bakery will go out of business. Thus forces on price achieve a balance. The rival bakeries will differentiate to maintain market share, either by being the cheapest or producing a higher quality product. Such a system allows for innovation, for example investment in new technology enabling costs to be lowered and thus we have economic growth. In this simple free market, every aspect of the market is free to influence the market. There are open dialogues between producers and consumers

This can be contrasted with an unfree markets, the semi-privatised UK railway network. On the Uk rail network , private companies bid to run selected services on the network. So a company will run the train services between A & B. The company has little control over the track, it has limited choice in what train carriages it can use. It has to charge government regulated fares, but is allowed to sell it’s own tickets too which of course have to be lower than the regulated fares. It has no competition as no other company is running a service between A&B. Technically it is competing against alternative forms of transport, such as motor cars, buses and aeroplanes, however the price differential between these forms of transport is massive. The railway company would have to alter fares by large factors to increase or decrease demand. Essentially there is no free market mechanisms in this fairly unfree market. Interaction between provider and consumer is quite limited.

Hence the argument for nationalisation of the railways is that private providers simply take profits away for no benefit to the market. A state railway could run the service more cheaply as it doesn’t have to make a profit.

What bugs me about the market fundamentalist position is that it’s too theory pure and lacks understanding of the real world. In the real world businesses are not interested in promoting or maintaining free markets. Real world businesses are concerned with providing a service and maximising profits, which is fine. Businesses may exploit rules or market position to prevent action of free market forces, particularly monopolies, so there is a role for the state to regulate markets to make them more free.

Railways and indeed housing are key industries as they provide infrastructure to the wider economy. They enable labour to move around the UK and in doing so enable other markets to be more free. For example a business isn’t restricted in it’s activities by the inflated costs of rail travel or housing. Such key industries can be free markets, but they are not close to being so anytime soon. Hence state intervention such as nationalisation or price capping, can help ease some of the problems and free up the wider economy.

We all want to live in an ideal world and that ideal world would consist largely of free markets. However there needs to be more  understanding that the world is not ideal. It would be better to move in the direction of the ideal rather than exacerbate existing problems in unfree markets. The ideal of free markets should not be tarnished by increasing use of the phrase ‘free markets’ to describe unfree markets. This is a problem because politicians use phrases such as ‘ we support free markets’ when it isn’t clear that they are talking about free markets and use the phrase merely to imply that the other lot are against free markets. This phenomena has reached the state where you hear politicians say ‘we want to make things better’ implying that the other lot wish to make them worse. Basically I think we all deserve  our politicians to act more like  grown-ups, rather than a class whom besmirch the ideal of free markets.

Social Feudalism

720px-Flag_of_Powys.svgWhen I was young and started thinking about politics the idea of Social Feudalism appealed to me. The basic premise is to take the  Middle Age system of regional Princes and Kings, such as Gwynedd or Powys, who extracted taxes from those who lived in their domains to live lives of culture and refinement in return for the rule of law and protection from raiders. Such systems was sustained for millennia. My modern twist on the system was to interject democracy into the system, the ruling class were restrained from over exploiting the serfs or imposing rules the populace wouldn’t accept through a democratic system, which I dubbed at the time the ‘Council of the Elders’.

These ancient Kingdoms perhaps had a tendency to expand, and in doing so become more efficient and offered greater protection to more organised bands of raiders. This perhaps led to the idea of establishing supranational entities for beneficial cooperation to be even more efficient, to have a Kingdom of the Britons. What happened was that the English/ Anglo-Saxons established a King of England first, who over, arguably, the more exciting  bits of history (Battles, court intrigue, which religion should we have debates etc) expanded influence to eventually create the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland (the UK), a modern nation state.

Historically the nation state is a fairly recent development in human history and is perhaps one whose time is passing. If the primary purpose is to protect populations from raiders, maintain the rule of law and share the advantages of scale, then it seems the nation state truly is in decline.

Modern raiders, or wars between nation states are now rare, so there is no need for nation states. Indeed the raiders now are the jihadist terrorists, who plot to destabilise nation states and use tactics that nation states struggle to counter but for no financial gain. Indeed the systems nation states established to counter terrorism reduce the freedoms of the subjects that nation states were able to protect.

Law is now global. We live in world of trade agreements and mega corporations who effectively set the rules or lack of them, rather than democratic or aristocratic bodies.

In the Uk the benefits of cooperation are no longer shared, living standards are in decline and the global rich, no longer attached to the land, just keep taking more of the pie.

The establishment, the modern day aristocracy, who have been kept in luxury by the nation state system is under threat: international trade agreements, jihadist terrorism and the end of the era of economic growth as the challenges of climate change and over-population prevent further economic growth, so they just seem to be asset stripping nations all the harder like there is no tomorrow.

Instead of the nation state investing in its poorer regions, such as Wales and ‘Yr Hen Gogledd’ (The Old North / Northern England), to deliver  growth and rise everyones living standards. In the UK, in recent decades we have seen the  UK establishment class asset strip the country for the gain of their group, rather than invest for the future. The nation state of the UK has lost it’s coherence, if it ever truly had it, where wealthier regions subsidise the development of poorer regions. Successful federal nation states, which maintain coherence and identity across the regions through regional governments, such as in Germany or the United States. I get the impression that those people much more comfortably identify as Germans or Americans, whilst we in Britian are more ‘I suppose I am British but…’. The UK has never really done this nation state building, being more obsessed with the development of Empire, power has always been centralised in central London and the regions plundered for their resources, coal, cheap labour and soldiers. Now the coal industry has died nations such as Wales have never received the investment it has needed to grow it’s economy to develop away from the old heavy industries. Wales has lacked the confidence to say, this really isn’t fair, the UK isn’t working for us, we’d be better off managing ourselves.

The answer seems to be more local accountability, to find solutions for local problems locally and not be subservient to protectors who no longer provide protection, rules that work or economic growth that is shared.

I have often encountered critiques of devolution, who argue reductively that eventually everyone is a king of their own tiny private kingdom. This position misses the whole point of bottom up democracy. Deciding where decisions should be made isn’t a case of always smaller, it’s finding the right size. The right size is where there is an optimum balance between the advantages of pooling resources for efficiency and retaining local accountability. An ‘area the size of Wales’ with our population of just over three million people may be the right size, because Wales’ leaders can’t get too removed from the people, it is possible if you want to to speak with members of the Welsh government and make your point and if they don’t listen to reasoned argument you should be able to vote them out of office, but our current electoral system doesn’t quite work. As long as you have democratic systems that allow power to be moved up and down, to and from regions then the best balance will be achieved and those decisions need to be made at a regional level. Statically leaving power at one level is not sustainable. It may be that recreating the Kingdoms of Dyfed and Monmouth is the right level for law making. Democracy should be about a fluidity of decisions that remains accountable to the smallest area. For example: My bit of Wales ( King Squimple I) – my region of Wales – Wales – Britain – Western Europe – Europe – The World government.

It has been a week where I’ve been catching up on Welsh history and reading about the grievous attacks on democracy in Spain. In a world of instability it’s very disturbing that the Spanish government is raising troops to attack democracy in Catalonia. If a region wants autonomy, it should demonstrate it clearly (by holding a monitored referendum or suchlike) and then regain autonomy. So I condemn the Spanish government for its actions to defend the nation state against democracy. The democratic right to self-determination is what allows humanity to be free of tyranny and bad kings /rulers.

Wales also needs independence or something that will deliver democracy, protection and rule of law. So, there are many parallels between Wales and Catalonia, also an ancient Kingdom and has it’s own language and culture. However there seems to be a big difference between Wales and Catalonia. The economic argument doesn’t seem to apply in their case.

Catalonia is one of the richest regions in Spain, whilst Wales is one of the poorest in the UK. So the nation-state redistribution of wealth to poorer regions, such as Andalusia  is how things should be, to gain the economic efficiency across what is now Spain. I don’t think the independence movement in Andalusia is very strong, perhaps because it is respected and invested in by the Spanish state. I wouldn’t be advocating independence for Wales if was benefitting from being in the UK and being respected as a nation for our language and culture. I don’t know all that much about the situation in Catalonia, these things are often complex and there will always be many reasons for the people there deciding independence is in their interests, look elsewhere for more information,  maybe they are just being greedy in seeking independence but even so, a heavy handed approach from a central government just sends shivers down my spine. Self determination and democracy are too important to give up upon. The Spanish government should be welcoming democracy and the chance to point out how Catalonia benefits from being in the Spanish family of nations if that is the case. Then again we no longer seem to have mechanisms for making the best solutions clear, we no longer live in the age of reason, but one of petty media barons.

Maybe, maybe, the time is coming for Social Feudalism, for the ancient Kingdoms to rise again, but this time with democracy and accountability to the people who live on their lands.

yescymruEstelada Catalan flag | Catalan flag | Estelada flag ...

 

 

 

The Fall and Rise of Respectability

My parents and grandparents went to some lengths to instil in me the importance of respectability. This concept was one I struggled to understand when I was young and then realised wasn’t important as I got older. What I did learn was that it was important to my older family and the older generation and discovered through my friends  that our generation didn’t give respectability any real value. So what I learned was how to play the game of respectability to not upset older people.

I think my main objection to respectability was that it was so complicated and seemed to lack a coherence or a logically related set of premises, it seemed like a fairly random set of rules and thus required commitment to learn. Really respectability had been important for generations, bound up with the issue of class that bound society together for a long time. Respectability is about showing that you have learned this very complex set of rules. Hence it is showing that you have been educated. This was an important badge of respectability during a period when a large chunk of society didn’t receive any formal education. The older generation are very impressed when our generation wave around degrees or have letters after our names, when my generation isn’t at all.

Much of these complex rules were not just about respectability and education but also about our culture and it’s traditions. I think the older generation have been fearful of the way my generation unpicked all the traditions and worked out which ones had sense or useful purpose to them and which were remnants of things that had once been useful but no more. I think they feared we would lose our culture and sense of who we were.

I kind of get that fear, but the rules are so harsh that they hold a culture bound to arbitrary rules that actually inhibit cultural growth. What I mean is that you can spend so much time and energy following the rules that you lack  the time to realise why something is valuable.

To illustrate this idea by example. As a child I was taken to a music concert, great, but this involved such things as dressing in uncomfortable clothes that I wasn’t comfortable wearing, sitting still and receiving instructions on how to appear I was appreciating the music. So, being an anxious child, I felt obliged to follow all these bizarre rules to keep my parents and grandparents happy, so much so that i didn’t get to enjoy the music! It was only later that I was able to relax and open my ears and really start to appreciate what the musicians were doing. So I now look down on anyone who suggests there should be ‘dress codes’ at musical concerts, if you like dressing up, great, if it’s not your thing, that is just as cool. I personally, make a point of not dressing up at all as all music should be accessible to everyone, whatever helps you open your ears is what is of paramount importance.

The other issue my cohort had when growing up was that we realised that we were growing up in rural Wales. We could look back on our families tilling the land for generation after generation and for me that meant I was one whole generation away from the land and that tradition.My cohort have been realising that in European terms our local culture hadn’t undergone the rapid changes experienced by those who went to the large towns and cities, that we also needed to learn the new etiquette of a more globalised world, especially those of us who had lost the farming tradition.

For my generation the world isn’t one of knowing the arcane rules of respectability. Perhaps we are more interested in what things are valuable and useful and disparage those things which aren’t. In a way all this is is just a completely new set of rules of respectability, with the difference in that the rules relate to the world we know rather than old traditions.

We live in rapidly changing times. Rural Wales was late in awakening to industrialisation, so when my parents generation realised that they weren’t to continue the agricultural tradition, Europe was beginning to struggle with post industrialisation, we had missed out perhaps almost entirely on the industrial era, apart from tractors replacing horses. Tractors replacing horses was surely progress, saving so much time and not needing to grow crops to feed the horses. However these very changes meant that fewer people were needed to work the farm. Many farms became one or two man operations and the rest of the family had to go and find work elsewhere, which almost invariably meant moving away.

Until that is, broadband came, and the transport network got so congested that staying at home for administrative jobs started to become the best option. Furthermore the beginnings of the effects of climate change are starting to have real unignorable impacts and the era of cheap oil and indeed it’s tractors is coming to an end. Perhaps I am witnessing the end of that  flight to cities to find work and all in just one generation.

Welsh farmers have largely always looked down their noses at all the city people, sitting in offices not producing very much of any real use. They are largely right of course. Whilst they have been spending all their days proudly producing food for people to eat. After all owning land was the height of respectability. European history has always been about the those at top of society who own the land.

The thing is anyone can farm. Humanity for most of history has been made up of farmers. It was only during the industrial period when modern conveniences enabled rises in living standards that land, farmland, for a time lost it’s value, enabling a generation of farmers to finally own their own land. It can be viewed that they got lucky to have ended up with the the thing that meant respectability to the very last generation that valued respectability.

I grew up with the concept of ‘look smart and wear a collar and tie’. The dual meaning of smart of being educated and dressing well, is perhaps no accident as both meanings are really about respectability. There is some evidence of this word ‘smart’ flipping in meaning as the meaning of respectability changes. We now talk about being ‘street smart’ and making smart decisions. These newer meanings of smart are not about old respectability but more about being a useful individual and contributing to rather than exploiting society.

The great irony for me growing up of wearing of ties is that the people who wore ties all the time were and still are the big business executives and politicians who made decisions for their personal gain and failed to appreciate what the communities they effected needed. It seems to me that the wearing of a tie is a mark of the disrespectful. I grew up during the Miner’s strike, and the baddies were all wearing suits. I only wear them when etiquette and tradition demands though.

Anyone who analysis society realises that the things that respectability valued, such as land or education are largely acquired by luck or an odious obsession with garnering the facets of respectability through acting in a disrespectful way, such as the acquisition of land to be a rentier, rather than actively working the land. Somewhat paradoxically respectability regards those who are respectable by luck of being in the right family  in the right place much more highly, rather than those who have acquired respectability by behaving disrespectfully by the new generations definition. Perhaps because the mistakes of the previous generations of the powerful were more innocent and on a smaller scale than those made by those in power today.

So, whilst my generation watch as the old respectability does, we are witnessing the rise of a new one where what is regarded as respectable has flipped and  is utterly different and instead values being true to yourself and your community, rather than learning the rules to be someone different and of entering a sub-community. Where diversity and difference is at last valued and conformity isn’t. The interesting question now is whether or not respectability will flip again in a new direction with the next generation or whether we stop valuing people’s acquired traits at all. I’m sure if either of these two directions is more worthy than the other.

 

Why I am not a Tory

I am a Social Democrat, a centrist, so I both get the idea of conservatism and socialism, yet view the two as both being fundamentally flawed when applied in the extreme. A good economy an da good society is I believe best achieved by taking elements of both creeds and applying a pragmatic analysis of what works where.

So, part of me is conservative and I know many conservatives, yet I kind of feel pity for them because of the Tory party in the UK. The Tories post-Brexit immigration plan leaked this week, it is just so typical of the kind of ill-thought through damaging policy I expect from the Tories, it’s so extreme, which should be an anathema to conservatives.

The issues with the Tory party is that is a party with three competing dogmas struggling for dominance: Firstly, old school conservatism which hasn’t had the chance to develop, and has become the backdrop, or a shared idea between the other two factions:

The market fundamentalists, neo-liberals or whatever label you wish to apply. The belief that markets can solve every problem, that all the world needs is less regulation and less services to be prosperous and healthy. It’s simple and a pure idea, but it just doesn’t work.

Then there are the nationalists, the people who hold that there is an exclusive club of people, of people just like them, or people who are prepared to act like them who deserve all the fruits of labour of society. This British nationalism harks back to the glory of Empire, of Imperialism. People with the idea that they’re lot arer simpler fundamentally better than everyone else for some unstated reason.

The problem for the Tory party is that these two beliefs are incompatible with each other. You can’t have an anarchy of free trade and provide protection for your privileged group, the idea of ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’ that we hear mentioned so often these days. What perhaps holds the Tories together is that it was once possible to square this circle, Empire!

The British Empire was essentially a large free trade area, controlled by the British state, which was run by the privileged classes. So there was free trade and protection at the same time. The days of Empire have gone but the Tories get stuck thinking that somethign similar can still be achieved.

This war between the Tory factions has often bubbled over on the issue of the Common Market, The European Community and now the European Union. The Nationalists hate the idea of the UK being subservient to a supranational organisation, yet some of them believe that it is a modern equivalent of the Empire; a large free trade area and protections for the privileged few, provided you are on the top table of the club. The nationalists however really dislike the social side of Europe, the community aspects of the club, the regulations. That the free trade aspect means that EU citizens come to the UK and have successful careers appals them, simply because they are not like them. This group have never liked the EU, because they have never been in enough control of the Eu to satisfy them.

On the other hand the market fundamentalists have mixed views of the EU for different reasons. They like the free trade aspects and want the EU to less regulated and more fundamentalist (these groups loved TTIP and CETA) and also this group hate the social and community side of the EU, not because they hate other people but because a working community rubs against their fundamentalism.

Generally both groups of Tories have, have mixed views of the EU, but have a mistrust of it because they don’t have full control over it, like they do with Westminster government in the UK.

On Brexit, Britain exiting the EU, the two groups are really coming to blows as neither group can get what it really wants, the British Empire back. The market fundamentalists eye up a deregulated Britain that can be the most market fundamentalist state in the world. However they are constrained that Brexit also means losing access to the huge free trade area of the EU. This group want access the the single market and also not have to obey the markets rules. This group could probably get a deal with the remaining EU that would suit their dogma, but the nationalists want somethign else:

The nationalists want very strict immigration controls, hard borders, restrictions to free trade and protectionism and this is the opposite of what the fundamentalists want. Hence we have this internal war within the Tory party, constrained only by the innate conservatism of their membership.

The divisions within the Tories over Brexit and lack of a coherent Brexit plan encapsulate the whole question of the EU. Outside of the Tory party the people of the Uk are also divided. There is the social EU and the market fundamentalist EU. The left object to the market fundamentalism and the right to the social Europe. Traditionally the political centre supports the EU as a mixed bag as it balances these two competing forces, which is what centrists want. However the EU isn’t perfect and even those of the centre have misgivings with it. My support fro remain is the the EU is better placed to provide some balance than the UK is. After all both the EU and the UK are supranational organisations. There can be no good Brexit until the UK has electoral reform and the Tories and Labour are kept out of absolute authority.

The recent EU, post Lisbon treaty has been ‘free’ movement of people within the EU, which is a new concept in economic terms. People have rightly objected to this free movement as it doesn’t deliver economic growth, it perpetuates problems. For example the UK doesn’t train and retain enough doctors and nurses, so the UK imports them rather than make sure it produces enough of them domestically, however the immigrant medical professionals only partially go where they are most needed.

It’s this ideological dogma that causes many problems, there are very few genuine free markets. Trying to impose free market reforms on imperfect markets doesn’t work. Look no further than the UK railways for examples of overpriced poor quality service in comparison to similar states. People may desire Brexit for ideological reasons as the EU is far from perfect, but there is no mechanism at the moment to make markets function better outside of the EU.

I’ve lived under this dreadful Tory party my whole life and I’ve never understood why ordinary conservatives and centrists have kept propping them up in election after election. Partly the FPTP electoral system is fairly rigged to keep the Tories or someone very like them (‘New Labour’) in power. Really the Tory party are the very worst people to be attempting to negotiate a workable Brexit solution.

Hopefully the Tories will collapse, but don’t bet on it, their resilience  is astonishing. Maybe, just maybe, we can but hope and we can forget this whole Brexit business, reform our electoral system, have autonomy for Wales and have decisions about our communities made for the benefit of those communities, to cooperate as widely as possible, to make decisions  that make economic sense; essentially to give democracy a crack!

 

Chlorine Chicken

A lot of fuss has been made about the suggestion of a post-Brexit allowing such things as chlorine chicken onto UK shop shelves. The issue is indicative of the perils of international trade deals potential to override democratic control.

The issue also exemplifies the separation of truth and perception. There is a kind of mob-rule going on, where the mainstream media perpetuate a myth and truth isn’t arrived at. People say ‘people don’t trust experts anymore’, but this is partly because experts are misrepresented by the media. Clickbait, a catchy headline to get people to a page is more important than good content.

As a scientist, the misrepresentation of science in general irritates me. The popular media refrain of ‘Science says’ is nonsense, Science doesn’t say anything. Science is a means of answering questions through undertaking experiments to establish if there is a relationship between things or not. Often the conversation goes something like this:

Media: Is Chlorine Chicken safe?

Science: Define safe

M: Is it safe to eat?

S: Define safe to eat, what is the question you are asking?

M: If someone eats chlorine chicken will they suffer poorer health straight away?

S: Ah ok, you want to know if chlorine chicken is has similar effects as a poison?

M: Yes

S: Okay we’ll look into it…

Okay, No, chlorine chicken is not like a poison.

M: Thankyou,  so the answer is that Chlorine  Chicken is safe .

S: Yes, if you define safe as not being poisonous.

The media then announce to the world that chlorine chicken has been scientifically proved to be completely safe.

Society: Really, science says that chlorine chicken is completely safe? what about long-term effects of such a diet. We don’t agree, we have lost trust in science.

Science: Hang on media, we didn’t say that it was completely safe, all we established was that it wasn’t a poison, using your very narrow definition of safe, there may be long term effects on health of introducing chlorine chicken into human diets, there is indeed some evidence that this is the case and…

Media: Sorry Science, that wasn’t what we asked and we haven’t time to discuss it, you’ve done your job and we’re too busy writing articles attacking people who are against chlorine chicken.

Scientists: Face… Palm.

So trade deals can then be set up, with their own judicial systems, that don’t allow actual safety to be an excuse for not being able to freely trade dangerous food or machinery, because they ticked the box of scientific testing, even if that testing was fairly meaningless.

This is why CETA, TTIP and potential UK post-Brexit “free trade” deals are a concern. The great Brexit irony of taking back control only to give away more control than was lost through membership of the EU.

Rather than society decide it’s own rules, that power is given up to corporations, who are only concerned with making money. The people in the corporations may have moral scruples, but these are very easily side-tracked in the fast pace of business, which is why we have regulations in the first place. Regulations so we don’t all have to spend money on our own research over whether a product is safe or not, with regulations that need only be done once, scientifically, through resolving exhaustive lists of questions.

Chlorine chicken is the pertinent example, it should not be brushed aside, because resolving the issue allows everything else to be more easily resolved. It doesn’t effect me because I’m never going to eat it.

 

 

 

Waiting for the bus that never comes

I used to hate waiting for buses. It was the not knowing how long you had to wait, whether it was worth getting my book out, whether I had time to pop to the local shop, an answer to whether  the bus had been cancelled so I could go to the pub for a pint or two whilst waiting for the next one. Often these days you can use an app’ on your phones which will tell you where the bus really is and how long it will be, which solves all these problems of lost time waiting and makes bus travel a lot less annoying.

Unfortunately there is not an app’ for the UK government. Brexit is like waiting for the bus that never comes; We know the service will be crap but at least we may soon be on the ruddy thing and we are no longer waiting.

We are in this strange Brexit zone. No-one talks about Brexit anymore, I think we are all fed up of going through the same tired arguments yet again, the arguments that frustratingly never get around to their logical conclusion. There doesn’t seem much we can go about it and we don’t want to open up those divisive arguments again. Of course we do make lots of jokes about how pathetic the UK is being by not having a Brexit plan and trying to wing it and keep the important electoral demographics happy during the process, rather than formulate sensible policy. I’m sure those outside the UK are making the exact same jokes.

It’s not only Brexit fatigue, it’s this whole three year period whilst the UK negotiates Brexit on the fly, with no plan of what to do with it. We kind of want to know what will happen at the end so we can start preparing for it and start thinking about how to adapt to it. We are waiting again without knowing when the bus will turn up. With this Tory UK government having decided to take all the responsibility for Brexit and secured government by a gnat’s wing to do so, there seems little to do but get on with our lives in the meantime.

When and indeed if Brexit does happen, I expect the vast majority of people to be disappointed, only a particularly bizarre few are going to get what they want. The big issues of the “debate” over Brexit of immigration and better regulations are not going to be tackled as there is unlikely to be any agreement of how best to resolve these problems. Of course we could actually have a debate, work through the issues and come up with sensible policies, but that isn’t how the British state works. The EU doesn’t work that way either of course, but is perhaps less likely to do anything truly daft, which was always my argument for remain; that the UK can and should do more to sort out our problems rather than waste years on Brexit with no plan for post-Brexit.

I am still aware of all the problems with the EU: economic migrancy, regulations that don’t really apply and are a hindrance to the UK economy, the Eurozone holding back the economies of Southern Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) etc. The problem with Brexit was that acknowledging these problems but not offering an alternative, not looking at what the alternatives are, the arguments never got beyond this beginning of forming an argument, taking the first premise as a conclusion.  A great weakness of the EU was failing to sort out the CAP. The CAP was a strong argument for Brexit, however the UK has not promised to replace it with anything better, instead suggesting that agriculture won’t get any subsidies, but don’t worry we can import lovely unhealthy foods like chlorine chicken and hormone beef from the US, making food regulation even more complicated. How is this better than staying in the EU?

The other powerful Brexit argument was that the UK would never be offered a choice on the EU again, so Brexit should be voted for to give Britain the chance for modern democracy and reform of our failing institutions. However instead of preparing for this, instead we hear about binding ourselves to a different set of damaging “free trade” deals.

We know that both of the major Uk political parties are slaves to their focus groups, rather than what is best for economy. Tory Bliar’s  [Tony Blair] “Labour” government, only implemented limited devolution to gain votes and the Tories only had Brexit to win an election as well. Britain just needs to end this ghastly Westminster system, have true democracy and that means Wales getting to decide it’s own affairs, rather than decided by these two lots of political careerists.

Much of the motivation for Brexit was hope, hope for new systems that actually worked and performed their function to be developed, rather than continual decline in living standards. Paradoxically, the only way for Brexit to work is bring Westminster government crashing down and allow genuine reform from the bottom up. We are still waiting for that but anxious that that day may never come.

The Future of Commuting

Traditionally people lived and worked in the same community, where travel from home to work was a relatively simple short walk . However the phenomena of commuting, living at a distance from the place of work has a history and in Britain has fundamentally changed how our society works. Where is this trend headed?

In the early days of commuting, it was simply that the better off could afford to travel every day and desired to live in bigger nicer homes a little further out from the centre of town. Roads had spare capacity for this and public transport was built around the idea of allowing people to travel into a town from further afield. The consequence of this was that inner city areas lost their middle class populations, became where the poor lived and became areas with high crime and social problems. This led to more people desiring to escape such ghettos and live further out.

This led to differentiation in cost of living, housing costs raised at different rates, mainly housing as transport networks began to reach capacity and travel in became slower. This meant that housing near travel hubs, whether railway stations or major roads became more desirable and costs increased. Then only those near the top if income brackets lived in the desirable hubs, leaving others living where they not only had to travel into the town but also travel increasing distances to the commuting network of railway stations and major roads.

As the economy specialised, larger corporations replaced numbers of local smaller businesses as they could initially produce the same goods more efficiently.  Subsequently, more and more jobs became based in hub cities, as smaller towns lost their local providers. Which further increased pressure on housing around the hub cities.

Today, we have a situation where living costs have become so high in the hub cities, the commute to work longer and more expensive, that people desire to escape, to regain the hours lost every day in expensive unpleasant travel. Partly this is a consequence of the economy separating our working lives from our personal lives.

Those able to, in particular for senior staff, with the rise of broadband internet  has enabled people to work from home. The ability to access files and use communication tools such as Skype has meant that there is no actual requirement to be in the hub city itself, except for an occasional meeting to facilitate the need to sometimes meet people face to face. This means that increasingly people can live where they want to, rather than where work needs them to be.

Often the choice is to live in the countryside, but not work there. To live somewhere away from transport bottlenecks is desirable and this makes it easier to travel to places away from the hub office when work demands such visits.

The interesting thing about this is that the effect of commuting on housing has had a reverse effect on areas. Where once people headed to the major towns and cities for work, they now leave them for a better life. Where once the suburbs around the big cities were once seen as the most desirable places are increasingly becoming the least desirable places to live. Really there is no longer anything requiring big towns and cities anymore as long as broadband internet and long distance travel options remain. Indeed a more evenly distributed population removes bottlenecks from transport infrastructure.

Having lived in both big cities and in the country, I can confirm that life is just easier in the smaller places. Getting food and satisfying daily needs takes less time as travel times are much lower than for people in cities.

Of course there are people who actually like living in cities. These people now occupy the inner city suburbs and price the poorer folk out to the suburbs, which is the reverse of the case twenty years or so ago.

The consequence of this is that businesses only need a nominal hub office and hire meeting space when required, the centres of cities become solely entertainment/ cultural hubs, where those who have travelled long distances to the face to face meeting can enjoy an evening of culture before heading back home. Those attending the meeting will arrange to meet so that they can travel in outside travel bottleneck times, when the junior staff still suffer commuting in from the suburbs.

Companies in London and the South East of England are already experiencing recruitment problems; British natives are reluctant to take jobs there and suffer the reduction in living standards/ costs to live there. Furthermore people are leaving London specifically to raise their standard of living, which isn’t good for a city hoping to maintain a it’s status as a living city.

It would seem that the era of daily commuting is coming to an end. Hub cities will remain for cultural pursuits (personal) rather than business (work) pursuits. The medium size towns, which struggle at the moment, will further decline.

As these trends continue they will impact on the UK housing crisis. Essentially people moving out of expensive cost of living areas, find relatively cheap housing and push up local pricing to the point the local people can not afford the housing and are forced to move away, so young people don’t live where there are opportunities to start their careers or learn the skills to home. It’s not all bad news, it will help the local high street, the butchers and bakers we have left that have survived, will benefit from  all the people who now can take a quick break to pop out to the local shops, rather than forced to rely on the supermarkets!

The Lights that Blind

Often on this blog I’ve highlighted the importance of diversity, that we as humans are all different and we have differing needs, that one size fits all approaches never work. So, I wish to discuss a very disturbing recent development with cars, that has failed to respect diversity.

In recent times there has been a trend towards ever brighter lights on cars. I used to think that it was just a few modders not considering other motorists, but they seem to have become standard on many new cars. I am talking about Xenon and LED lighting.

The idea behind these lights is that they are more energy efficient (which is great) and enable the driver to see more with there headlights (which by itself is also a good thing). However such lights dazzle other road users. Technically this is illegal:

UK Highway Code Rule 114

  • use any lights in a way which would dazzle or cause discomfort to other road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders

However this rule is as far as I am aware never enforced and there is no upper brightness limit in law, so dazzle is defined as being subjective. So if I experience dazzle then technically a vehicle with these lights is illegal. Yet nothing is being done about this!

It’s all of the lights on a car thus fitted, which does cause problems:

Headlights

More powerful headlights allow the driver to see more and may decrease some accidents. There has always been the problem of headlights at night causing reduced visibility to on coming drivers and drivers have developed strategies to cope with this. However when the brightness is increased the danger of decreased visibility to other drivers is increased which may increase accidents. There is a balance to be achieved here. However there is no mechanism in place to ensure the safest balance is achieved.

Day Running Lights

What is the point of these, other than to dazzle other drivers? They offer the driver no increased clarity, merely decrease other drivers vision.

Rear Running Lights

These are essential at night so other drivers are can be aware of other active vehicles. However, dazzling the car behind doesn’t help anyone. Most rear running lights are not too bright until brakes are applied

Rear Brake Lights

Perform the vital role of signaling following drivers of braking, that the car is slowing down and that the driver may have spotted a hazard ahead. However id they are too bright, as many of them are now, they dazzle the following drivers, causing them to be able to see less, which has no advantages.

Stationary Brake Lights

When I learnt to drive, the importance of Handbrake – Neutral was drummed into me. This action switches off the rear brake lights, mainly for safety in a collision but also to stop dazzling the driver behind.

Now, sometimes, we are lazy and we hold our cars on the foot brake. This didn’t cause dazzle problems for most people as the lights were not overly bright and on older models of cars the lights were lower down on the car body, more importantly below eye height, so the light wasn’t directly in the centre of the field of vision. This is an increasing problem as most drivers where I live have dropped the Handbrake – Neutral action when stopped temporarily and more worryingly some modern cars which switch the engine off to save fuel when stationary keep the rear brake lights burning holes in following drivers retinas, well give us sun spots anyway. The problem with this is that the following drivers eyes adjust to the bright light, so for a while afterwards their vision is dimmed, which has safety consequences.

So how did we get to a point where new cars are not designed to be safe?

Part of the issue is that we are all different and have different light sensitivity. I raised this issue with friends and colleagues and most people don’t find these brighter lights dazzling or a problem, even though their vision is still dimmed. However I realised that I am not alone, there seems to be a significant minority of people who are more light sensitive, for whom brighter lights are more dangerous.

Remember we are all different and even see the world in different ways. For example, I didn’t realise quite how prevalent various forms of colour-blindness are. So the needs of the light sensitive should be taken into account when designing and regulating cars on the roads.

There doesn’t seem to be any action on this front. I wrote to the government and they are not even looking into this issue. The difficulty is that the car manufacturers lobby governments for minimal regulations, as surely the market will regulate for safety as it is what drivers want.

However, in this case, market forces don’t work. If your car dazzles others it doesn’t affect you as driver, all you see is your slight improvement in visibility, the negative effect is suffered by other road users. But other road users have zero influence on your choice of car and it’s lighting. Having a really bright car that is more noticed may mean that there is a decreased chance of other people running into you, however when all cars are overly bright this advantage is lost and everyone is left with overly bright cars and the roads are overall less safe places.

It is simply dangerous to not consider the needs of others, especially when no wider advantage makes up for the loss of a particular minority. Everyday I witness inconsiderate driving that may cut a few seconds off someones journey only to slow down everyone else. What is more disturbing is when these issues are built into the cars themselves.

There is a potential solution. Driving spectacles have been developed to reduce light glare. Basically they have a yellow tint which filters out the UV/ blue light spectrum which reduces headlight dazzle. I’ll have to check these out!

 

 

 

Eisteddfod #2

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I picked up some Czech hitchhikers on their holidays on my way to the Eisteddfod this year and was asked where I was headed: ‘What is the National Eisteddfod?’ It isn’t an easy question to answer, because the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol is so much more than simply a cultural festival. This was my second proper Eisteddfod. So having having learnt about the Eisteddfod last year and done it a little more knowledgeably this year, it’s time I should teach someone else how to do it.

It is important to tell people about the Eisteddfod, as so many people in Wales, previously myself included, don’t go to the Eisteddfod or follow it in the media because of this strange phenomenon of being ‘intimidated by the language [Cymraeg/ Welsh]. I know, my very first Eisteddfod experience was when I was fifteen and got a job as a plate scrubber on the Maes when it came to my area and  I was like ‘I don’t speak Welsh, people will expect me to speak Welsh, arghhh!’ This is really just plain silly, so many people are missing out on quite a wonderful event, which can be enjoyed whether you speak Welsh or not. So, I hope the following guide will help people overcome any feelings of intimidation about going next year.

Cystadlaethau / Competitions

Eisteddfodau are essentially a collection of competitions in various art forms, predominantly cerddoriaeth [Music and poetry, which are essentially the same thing]. The grand poetry prize of the Eisteddfod is the Chair [Eistedd = to sit, on the cadair [chair]] The competitions are the very serious bit  at the National Eisteddfod. Personally I used to have a problem with competition in art, because it’s an oxymoron, you don’t do creative things to win things, that isn’t the point. However after two Eisteddfodau [Eisteddfods] I have been convinced. I have heard so many hugely talented young musicians at the Eisteddfod, who just completely push themselves to give their very best at the Eisteddfod and I have been blown away so many times by their performances. There are so many competitions to enjoy, particularly if you love the sound of the telyn [Harp] as much as I do. You do not need to understand Welsh to appreciate the music.

I’m sure there are many people who have a blissful week, just listening to the competitions, yet there are also people who spend the entire week not listening to a single competition, there is so much else going on.

Gwyl Cerddoriaeth/ Music Festival

Outside the competitions, the Eisteddfod is also a celebration of Welsh language culture. So, the Eisteddfod is also a regular music festival, with the best of Welsh language bands and singers on lots of different stages giving performances throughout the day and into the evening, so you can treat the Eisteddfod as just another music festival. So yes, expensive beer and food stands a plenty! Yet again, there is no need to speak Welsh to enjoy music is there? This is my favourite part of it because I love Welsh popular [?] music, yet, liking classical music as well sometimes a competitive performance will win me over! Yet there is still more.

Theatr / Theatre

There are a couple of theatres at the Eisteddfod giving performances of plays and other things by established Welsh theatre companies. The great thing about theatrical performances is that you can follow the story through actions and tone of voice and can really enjoy a show without understanding a single word, which I’ve often done whilst travelling, which is actually a really good primeval way to watch a drama unfold.

There are also actors who wander around in bizarre costumes looking for members of the public to interact and do silly things with. This year some ladies  with lampshade heads were dancing with me.

Y Babell Len a Pabell Cymdeithas/ The ‘Curtain Tent’? [ I am still learning Welsh I’m not sure of this translation!] and the Societies Tent

I know there are some people who don’t like music. I don’t understand these strange folk, but they do exist, maybe you are one of them? So in these tents there are a host of lectures and discussions about all manner of topics. They are in Welsh of course and even I, after eighteen months of learning Welsh, only understand about half of what is said. So, there is this mini Welsh Hay festival going on too.

It is worth going just to experience simultaneous translation. Basically the translator listens to the Welsh and then instantly translates it into English to you via headphones. These people are amazing, to be able to keep listening in one language, translate and  speak in another language, while continuing to listen in another language, without going completely mad is such a high level skill and so impressive.

Y Stondin / The Stands

All of the above can be overwhelming and far too exciting, so you may need a break,  angen paned o goffi [need a cup of coffee]  and the opportunity to stretch your legs for a bit. So head to the stands. The stands are essentially trade stands , but so much more. There are squillions of book shops to stock up on Welsh language books, because, sadly, most bookshops don’t stock books in Welsh, I understand there are some books in English too, lots of other shops to browse/ buy cakes from, but also the stands of various organisations in Wales, where you can find out about what they do, have a nice chat in whichever language you fancy, a paned and often these stands hold their own musical performances and programmes of discussions too. Sometimes you will stumble on some very strange yet wonderful things:

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‘Classifieds y Farmers Guardian’ gan y Welsh Whisperer

 

Pethau eraill / Other Things

As if all that wasn’t enough there is also an art gallery, a history museum, a science and technology tent (well this tent seems to largely cater to keeping children entertained with fun things to do, but worth a going as an adult too).

If you are Welsh you will also meet random people from your childhood/ earlier life, which is always nice. So there is so much to enjoy and do and I haven’t even mentioned Y Gorsedd, who wear strange robes and perform strange rituals at various points of the week and carry around a very large sword; it’s ok, mae’n heddwch [there is peace]. I have no idea what happens if there isn’t peace…

There is so much to do and enjoy at the Eisteddfod. I went for just three days this year and didn’t get to do as much as I wanted to and wished I could have had more time. And you really don’t need to speak any Welsh at all, a simple  ‘Dw i ddim yn siarad Cymraeg’ / ‘I don’t speak Welsh’ is all that is required if someone seems to be speaking Welsh at you.

Of course if you are learning Welsh, the Eisteddfod is an amazing playground to practice speaking and listening and the more Welsh you know, the more a part of the Eisteddfod you will become. Personally I did indeed enjoy the Eisteddfod even more with another year of Welsh under my belt. However even if you have zero Welsh, timetables and maps are provided in English to help non-Welsh speakers navigate their way around the Eisteddfod, it’s very accessible and very friendly, there is no need to feel intimidated at all.

Just cofio [remember] that Welsh speakers have to speak in English all the time, every day, so really appreciate the Maes as a place where they can speak in Welsh all day yn gyntaf [firstly], yet are happy to speak English with anyone who hasn’t learnt to speak Welsh yet. Speaking in Welsh isn’t being rude and neither is speaking in English rude as long as you are willing to listen and communicate as you can. It’s ridiculous that this non-issue comes up so often. Rant over

Amgylch y Maes / Around the Maes

Y Maes / The Maes / The ‘field’ is where all the action described above takes place. I and others are not sure how this is going to work next year when the Eisteddfod will be in the centre of Cardiff, the Welsh capital, but the concept of the Maes is quite important I think. However there are other ‘Maeses’ which can confuse the uninitiated:

Maes B

Maes B is usually located outside the main Maes. It contains an adult campsite (the cheapest place to stay at the Eisteddfod!) it is generally full of young Welsh speakers. Indeed spending a week at Maes B is regarded as a rite of passage for young Welsh speaking adults, to chill and make new friends. Also, for the last four nights of the Eisteddfod the big names of Welsh rock perform late night concerts on the Maes B stage in front of the aforementioned young and now often quite drunk people. It is quite an experience, though there are usually a few old fogies like me bopping away ar y cefn [at the back]

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Helo Maes B!

Maes C

Maes C ( Maes Carafannau a Campio) isn’t very exciting, it is simply the camp site next to the Maes where families stay, it’s quite pricey and books up early.

Maes D

Confusingly, Maes D, Maes y Dysgwr [Learners Maes] isn’t really a Maes as it’s part of the main Maes itself, it is found next to the Mynedfa (Entrance) and is the Welsh learners tent. I think the  idea is that you pop in to learn some Welsh over a paned to prepare you for entry to the Maes proper.  A place if you lack confidence in your Welsh, or somewhere supportive to ymarfer siarad [practice speaking], want to learn a few phrases or to start the day with a reasonably priced coffee, give Maes D a visit. Maes D also has it’s own stage, for Welsh lessons, discussions and a few musical performances tailored to those not yet rhugl [fluent]

Maes E

There is no Maes E. Well there is the song ‘Maes E‘ by Datblygu about the Eisteddfod experience. Incidentally , the song which I heard them perform at my very first Eisteddfod when I was fifteen! However, there is usually an Eisteddfod ‘fringe’ of competitions, discussions, gigs etc held at venues close to the Maes, but not ‘officially’ part of the Eisteddfod.

So there you are then, a guide to the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol. Just by reading this article you probably have enough Welsh to enjoy the Eisteddfod.

Edrych ymlaen i weli di ar y maes flwyddyn nesaf [Looking forward to seeing you on the Maes next year]!