The question of the EU

The debate is now on and in 100 days we have to make a decision that will have repercussions for at least the next 30 years.


Lots of people are arguing over the issues of sovereignty. But I should declare my point of view – In an increasingly global world, it not a question of whether we should pool our sovereignty, it is only a question of with whom we should be collaborating?

Great Britain has just 1.3% of the world’s people but we still run the 5th largest economy (by gdp). We are disproportionately well represented in the institutions of the world which is a legacy of our days as an imperial power. None of these benefits are seen by the rest of the world as ‘the natural order of things’, and they are unlikely to help us to sustain them beyond the very near future.

Democratic Deficit

Some claim that there is a democratic deficit at the heart of Europe and that is grounds for leaving. It is True there is a democratic deficit which I deplore!

But that democratic deficit is not unique to Europe. There is a democratic deficit in our 2nd chamber the Lords, or in our eviscerated local government. The house of commons is the most centralised and powerful of all the governments of Europe and whenever we try to deliver democratic accountability, central government closes rank to prevent it on the grounds that it diminishes their power. There is no real political will to give democratic legitimacy to any European institutions. That is why the political establishment is unified in its hatred of ‘ever closer union’. How will it help if we are outside of the EU especially if Scotland and Northern Island end up seceding from the UK.

The Economy

One of the advantages of living longer is that you remember the past. I particularly remember the time when each new Labour election victory was met by a ‘run on the £’. The expectation of poor economic performance meant that the ‘hot money’ of the world’s financiers fled the UK, which in turn devalued the currency and caused the economic problems that they predicted. A vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophesy that impoverished people in the real world. Today that same hot money has been pumping up the UK property bubble to the extent that many people in the South East are now making more from the appreciation of their houses, than they are capable of earning in a full time job.

Once you see lunacy of that magnitude, it is clear that there are troubled times ahead. How should we manage these difficult time? Now is the time when we should be trying hard to make friends not enemies.

Stop the world I want to get off

There are some people who think that the troubles of the EU are the cause of instability rather than the effect. They argue that the EU is on a terminal trajectory towards self-destruction and we should get off the boat before it sinks.

The EU might well be in deep difficulties and I am of the opinion that the global economy is in a worse state than we think because the repercussions of the 2008 banking crisis are yet to work their way through the global economy. Economic dangers abound in all countries and the only bright spot is likely to be the economic stimulus we will derive form the collapse in Oil prices

But even if the EU is especially vulnerable, there are 2 questions we need to consider. If we are at a tipping point of economic Armageddon

1. Could the UK choosing to leave the EU be exactly the push needed to tip the collapse of the EU that we are scared of? There is a sever risk of contagion throughout the continent if we choose to leave.

2. Whether we are inside or outside the EU we will be very adversely affected by a wholesale collapse of the largest economic block in the world. How would being outside the EU protect us from the consequences?

There is some strength in numbers and despite being separated by different languages, our European shared history means that we still have more in common with the people of the EU than we do with the dictatorships of Russia and China or even the type of America being advocated by Donald Trump.

I prefer to face whatever this uncertain future may bring, on the inside of the EU contributing to changes that will help us to collectively navigate a dangerous world, than facing it on our own.

I am sure that if the tectonic plates of the world economy are about to be convulsed by one of its periodic earthquakes, we will be better off as a part of Europe than as the pariah trigger that set it off. An easy target for economic or military forces that may wish to pick us off.

The Chocolate Teapot analogy

You are standing in a bar and a couple of guys nearby get into a heated argument. The first says that there is a chocolate teapot in orbit around Jupiter; The second equally violently asserts that it is impossible.  They debate the issue from all sides – why chocolate instead of something more substantial, who put it there, how long could it last etc etc, but in the end there can be no proof that will settle the question because the orbit of Jupiter is so large that it will never be possible to check all of it for the existence of a chocolate teapot!

The question you now need to address is, in the absence of proof either for or against the existence of a chocolate teapot in orbit around Jupiter, which are you going to choose to believe? In this case I guess it is a bit of a no brainer….

Clearly this is just a more extreme version of a dilemma that we face all the time when choosing between different hypotheses for which there is insufficient evidence to reach a final conclusion.  The normal scientific approach is to explore a ‘simple’ solution in preference to the more complex.  And in this case it is clearly simpler to assume that the chocolate teapot does not exist because of the complexity of the world view that its existence would imply. Occam’s razor is “the law of parsimony, economy or succinctness. It is a principle urging one to select from among competing hypotheses that which makes the fewest assumptions.”

The Greek Financial Crisis – June 2011

There is at least a chance that we will look back on the next 3 months as the time the world stopped!!!

The country of Greece has a sovereign debt of about $500bn, which is just a bit less than that of Lehman Bank when its bankruptcy plunged the world into a banking crisis that was only averted by the wholesale transfer of bank debt into sovereign debt.

The UK banking system currently has outstanding loans of £6.5tr (yes that is trillions) which is 4 times the size of our GDP. And the banks themselves hold a mere £300bn of equity capital to support those loans. Nobody really has a handle on where those loans are placed and how much any individual bank is exposed in the event of a Greek default.

But what is certain is that when the default happens, if it is not managed far better than past experience gives us cause to hope for, it will lead to another crisis of the banking system as they all refuse to lend to each other as happened in 2008. And this time round the countries will not have the funds to bail out the banks.

There is no doubt that the Greek people have been culpable in that the they have been living far beyond their means for years, and they have been doing it on borrowed money.  But the punishment that is being asked of them is that they pay €100bn of debt repayments (reparations) pa.  This represents 40% of GDP and is plain impossible. This is why a default is considered inevitable.

The weather is not the only thing that is looking stormy this father’s day weekend.

An atheist in a moral universe

There was a time when the possibility of the earth revolving round the sun was the subject of much debate and, since there was a limited amount of evidence, it was basically a matter of belief and philosophy. Today there is no longer any serious debate, not least because we have actually travelled to the moon and walked around on it.

100 years ago the only way to understand the ‘moral’ laws that govern our social construct, was inductive reasoning; but over the last few years we have made amazing discoveries in genetics (popularised in “the selfish gene”), and how the brain works (read “The tell tale brain”) and a recent book “The braintrust” now argues that morality originates in the biology of the brain. It describes the “neurobiological platform of bonding” that, modified by evolutionary pressures and cultural values, has led to human styles of moral behaviour.

I am not saying that science has all the answers, but I am sure that it will bring new insights to the function of moral codes and explanations of how they can work even without recourse to the authority of a god figure to back them up. As an atheist it is important to understand that our moral code is just as strong and well based as that of any religious person.

Professionals now face automation

Artificial intelligence has long been the promise of the computer industry’s future, but until recently it has been characterised by a failure to deliver on almost all fronts. But there is now a serious risk to the professional classes that over the next decade their right to power, status and money will be challenged by a competitor that they cannot beat.

The way this is coming about is not as we might have expected. Take  as an example ‘e-discovery’ software.

In 1978 there was a court case in America in which over 6 million documents had to be examined at a cost of $2.2m, much of it being done by a small army of lawyers and paralegals who worked for months at high hourly rates.

In a similar case today ‘e-discovery’ software has analysed 1.5 million documents for just $100,000.  And these intelligent  discovery products go well beyond simple key word searching and are capable of extracting relevant concepts and spotting relationships that would seldom be picked up by their human counter parts.

As computers become better at mimicking human reasoning skills they are increasingly challenging the people in high powered, well paid jobs. It has been estimated by Mike Lynch (founder of Autonomy) that the software enable 1 lawyer to do the job of 500, and to do it at least twice as well.

The government is lending money to students on the basis that they only have to pay it back if they get well paid jobs.  It is not obvious which degree courses are most likely to provide a secure return on these loans!

Dihydrogen Monoxide should be banned!

Dihydrogen monoxide should be banned as a matter of urgency.

It is well known that this chemical is fatal when inhaled, contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape, may cause electrical failures, and has been found in the excised tumours of terminal cancer patients. And yet we find this dangerous substance in all major food groups and despite all this evidence, nothing is being done to protect us from this threat!

(An old joke – but I like it!)

The parent habit

There was a lovely phrase in a Guardian article today, written by a single mother who brought up a son on her own.  When she first realised she was pregnant and on her own she says “I found it a huge relief to give up the habits of egotism ingrained for 3 decades, in favour of having someone to take care of”.  20 years later her son had to force her back into society when he left for University, and that is the natural order of things. But, it is also clear from the story that she would never have given her son the space to grow up, if he had not fought for it.

Such is the circle of life just as it should be!

My favourite Quotes

I learned that it is the weak who are cruel, and that gentleness is to be expected only from the strong.
Leo Rosten (1908 – )

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.
Seneca (5 BC – 65 AD)

Always behave like a duck – keep calm and unruffled on the surface but paddle like the devil underneath.
Jacob Braude
It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem.
Malcolm Forbes (1919 – 1990)
Success covers a multitude of blunders.
George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950)
I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.
Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)
One must somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must love the world without being worldly.
G.K. Chesterton
Forgive many things in others; nothing in yourself.
Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.
Elbert Hubbard (1856 – 1915)
It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.
Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962), ‘This Is My Story,’ 1937
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940), “The Crack-Up” (1936)
The universe is made of stories, not atoms.
Muriel Rukeyser
Successful people in this world are those who get up and look for circumstances they want. If they can’t find them, they make them.
George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950)
Having once decided to achieve a certain task, achieve it at all costs of tedium and distaste. The gain in self-confidence of having accomplished a tiresome labor is immense.
Dr. Thomas Arnold Bennett
Virtue is its own punishment.
Aneurin Bevan
That which has always been accepted by everyone, everywhere, is almost certain to be false.
Paul Valery (1871 – 1945)
Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theatre.
Gail Godwin
Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
Edward Abbey (1927 – 1989)
Living apart and at peace with myself, I came to realize more vividly the meaning of the doctrine of acceptance. To refrain from giving advice, to refrain from meddling in the affairs of others, to refrain, even though the motives be the highest, from tampering with another’s way of life – so simple, yet so difficult for an active spirit. Hands off!
Henry Miller (1891 – 1980)
Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.
Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

If you can’t appreciate what you’ve got, then you had better get what you can appreciate.
George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950), Pygmalion

Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.
Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996)
It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order — and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order.
Douglas Hostadter

It is not the greatness of a man’s means that makes him independent, so much as the smallness of his wants.
William Cobbett (1763 – 1835)

When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.
Henry Ford (1863 – 1947)

You will find that the State is the kind of organization which, though it does big things badly, does small things badly, too.
John Kenneth Galbraith (1908 – )

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.

Vote yes for AV on the 5th May

At the last election I was fairly ambivalent as to which party I supported, which is unusual for me.  But I was pretty certain that I did not want the Conservatives to win!

  • I was sure that the Osborne form of sado-masochistic economic policy in which we bow to the rich and famous in the naive belief that what is good for them will also be good for the rest of us, was straight wrong.
  • I was sure that the extreme right wing hiding in the bushes under the Cameron PR veneer of a rehabilitated ‘Conservative brand’, were a real and present danger.
  • In fact almost every  one of their policies from schools to immigration, and from banks to Europe rang alarm bells…

The trouble was that I didn’t know how to vote against the Conservatives in my own constituency because the anti conservative vote was evenly split, and the inevitable then happened.  The Conservatives won with a minority of the vote because the anti-conservative vote was split.  Clearly AV would have solved my dilemma…….. but it becomes even more interesting if you follow through the logic.

Under an AV system all parties would understand that choosing policies that alienate large numbers of voters would not be a successful strategy, so it is very likely that extremists within all parties will loose strength. And I would maintain that anything that strengthens the middle ground of politics against the extremist fringes, is very likely to be good for he country.