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Entries in UK (51)


The Scottish question?


An eye on London


The departure of the Mayflower

Our holiday cruise departed from Southhampton, a dock which has seen the departure of both the Titanic and the Mayflower. Looking at how dismal Mayflower Park is, perhaps one can understand why the Pilgrams left for America in a much-overestimated colonisation event. (Although, the Pilgrams were such stuffy puritans that they probably complained England wasn't dismal enough for their tastes).

To be fair, Southhampton was actually surprisingly nice, with a vibrant shopping district, very nice parks (apart from dreary Mayflower Park) and a core of historic buildings. For the shear novelty of it, we spent a day in the American-style shopping mall, the highlight of which was building a bear with Hayden. He decided to build a scary shark wearing a purple sparkly dress and large boots, who he calls "Princess Shark". 



European election results - there was no "European earthquake"

Last weekend the EU had its election - the second largest democratic election in the world (after that of India). The results tend to be rather difficult to interpret, especially as the reporting focuses on the most sensational outcomes. So let's start by looking at the broad trends:

Conservative & economic liberal parties: These parties, on the centre-right of European politics, were the biggest losers of the EU election, dropping down from 414 seats to 338 seats. This is a nasty swing, moving from ~55% of parliament to ~45% of parliament, but overall they still constitute the largest political grouping, and will continue to have the largest say in the new EU parliament.

Socialist & green progressive parties: These parties, on the centre-left of European politics, were the unsung winners of the EU elections. They rose from 285 seats to 316 seats, an increase from 37% to 42% of parliament. This more than eliminates the losses they were inflicted at the last EU election (which were considered a disaster at the time). Of course, not losing as badly is not the same as winning, but there was a clear gain, and the progressives will likely be more influential in the new parliament, especially if the centre-right wants to distance itself from the far right.

Far-right crazies: These were the talk of the election, and if the media was to be believed Europe was going to experience a far-right tide (in relative terms, of course, most of these nutters would feel at home in the Republican party in America). The far-right did indeed steal votes from the centre-right, and increased from 67 seats to 97 seats (from 9% to 13% of parliament). But to put the EU results in a bit of perspective, the entire far-right surge in seats was due to only two parties - UKIP in the UK (up 12 seats) and the Front National in France (up 21 seats), and both of these were due to the losses on the right. Despite the large gains, expect the far-right to be ignored in the next parliament - their politicans don't have the skill to work behind the scenes and they don't have any incentive to actually get anything done. These parties only survive in opposition, so they will continue to act like it.

Ignoring the hype, what is the actual outcome of the EU election?


  • There is no "European earthquake". The left-right balance more or less reverted from the shift to the right in the last election. The vote turnout more or less stayed the same. There is an ongoing process of the major parties losing votes to smaller parties, but this is fractioning the existing ideological make-up, rather than representing a profound shift within Europe. The composition of the parliament that will actually work together is fairly similar to the last parliament, and even the one before that.
  • The centre-right is reaping what it sowed. For the past decade, the centre-right in certain European countries (UK, France, Italy) has played up populist racist messages in order to beat the centre-left. This was a successful short-term strategy, but it is now backfiring, as the hatred stirred up in voters has boiled over to the point where the far-right is now cannibalising off the centre-right (similar to the Tea Party in the US). In volatile Italy and Portugal, this exploded in the last EU election and has reverted to normal in this one. Hopefully we see the same in France, and the Front National becomes a one election wonder. The opposite of Italy is the situation in Poland and Hungary, which slid to the radical right last election and have stayed there. Unfortunately, I doubt we will see any centre-right wing parties learn from this lesson, and if anything I expect them to lean even more to the far-right.
  • Someone needs to make the case for Europe in the UK. In the UK, the last ten years have seen UKIP rise from nothing to being the largest British party in the EU parliament. Notably, the British only vote for UKIP in EU elections, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing, because the British public clearly understand that UKIP are a bunch of incompetent crazies, good as a protest vote but not the type of people you'd put in charge of anything that mattered. Which brings us to the bad - the UK treats the EU elections as an appropriate venue for a meaningless protest vote. "Why" is an interesting question. I think part of this might be that the "European party" in the UK (the Lib Dems) is led by the least popular British politican, who is synonomous with selling out his party. More long-term, I think it is because being in opposition is easy, so governments like to pretend that the EU is the opposition and blame the EU for things that the government voted for. Someone more competent than Clegg needs to make the (very strong) case for Europe in the UK.
  • Czechs and Slovaks just don't care. In both countries, the turnout was below 20%. Overall the turnout in Europe rose slightly (43%), but in several Eastern European countries turnout was shockingly poor. If these countries want to have any say about the Europe they are part of, they should look into their electoral systems and consider making substantial changes. 



Pseudoscience is criminal - James McCormick deserves jail

Today James McCormick was found guilty of massive fraud, after pocketing £50m profit from selling dowsing sticks. The "harmless" activity of dowsing is not just carrying around a Y-shaped stick looking for water; like many other ancient superstitions it has been incorporated into New Age nonsense and is used to look for everything from untapped oil reserves to lost golf-balls. 

I hope you are thinking "what nonsense"; I expect you followed it up with "but who does it hurt?". The problem is that believing in any pseudoscientific nonsense is a faith-based enterprise, removing evidence and reason from the decision-making process. If someone sells "lost golf ball dowsers" and sells them to the gullible at $20 each, it doesn't do much direct harm. But when society embraces this garbage it can do a lot of harm indeed.

Moving on to James McCormick, he bought up large shipments of the $20 "lost golf ball dowsers", replaced the stickers and then sold them to the Iraqi government at $40,000 each as explosive detectors. The claims were so over the top (it is powered by the user's static electricity, it can detect explosives from the air or even 1km underground, you can reprogram it by putting it in a jar with any other substance to absorb the vapours), that it is obvious to any rational person that the thing was a shame. McCormick even said in an interview that "the theory behind dowsing and the theory behind how we actually detect explosives is very similar". 

Unfortunately, we aren't all rational people, and anyone who believes in dowsing for water is hardly in a position to rationally reject the concept of dowsing for explosives. The Iraqi government was so taken with these devices that they replaced physical inspections with dowsing - and people died as a consequence. When confronted with the scam the Iraqi General Directorate for Combating Explosives replied: "Whether it's magic or scientific, what I care about is detecting bombs". And that is exactly the problem. It does matter whether it is magic or science, because science works but magic/dowsing/crystals/prayer/etc do not. Before you laugh too hard at Iraq, more than 20 different countries have bought into this scam, including Belgian police using them for detecting drugs.

James McCormick deserves jail. The greater point, however, is that a society which embraces "harmless" faith-based rubbish is more susceptible to harmful faith-based rubbish. Belief in crystal healing doesn't hurt directly, but it can lead to use of alternative medicines that can kill. Praying to get better from a cold leads to praying to get better from HIV - and hence less diligent use of actual HIV meds. Believing in a God looking out for you makes you more susceptible to lottery scams and the like. And the worst, of course, is when the gullible fools taken in are in positions of power, so we all feel the consequences of their faith-based decision making.



Canterbury canals

The gate to Canterbury cathedral

Why not try the best sandwich in Sandwich, as judged by the Earl of Sandwich?

The white cliffs of Dover

Egg hunting in Whitstable


We went to Scotland, it was raining

From the moment we crossed over from England to Scotland the drizzle started. Hayden prompty fell asleep, leaving me to wander around the streets of Edinburgh by myself. My first impression was of a frightfully grim city. It felt as though the old stone used to build the city had been rained on for so many hundreds of years that it had absorbed the gloom and joined forces with the sky to suffocate any colour from a gray city. 

Gray stone creates a certain gothic splendour, or at least an imposing sense of permance that makes the onlooker understand that they will need to accept the building if nothing else. Not so for gray concrete, which invariables degrades into a dirty water-stained muck, which is why the design of new Scottish Parliament building is an insult to a proud city.

A plaque in St Giles Cathedral in the old town had me shaking my head in disbelief. "Thank God for James Young Simpson's discovery of chloroform anaesthesia in 1847". Obviously we are all happy about the discovery of chloroform anaesthesia, but shouldn't James Young Simpson be the one who is thanked? I don't even understand the religious rationale behind it. Either God directly inspired Simpson, in which case he was a bit of a bastard ignoring the needless pain before 1847, or God does not directly intervene to aid science, in which case he should get no credit. At the very least, God should get the blame for the many who died of chloroform anaesthesia before better drugs were invented.


Images of York

York Minster

The Shambles

The Treasurer's House

Lydia's favourites: the squirrels of York


Men's room vending machines

I've always thought that the vending machines in men's bathrooms must say something about a culture. This one in a pub in York only has one option of getting condoms. The other five options are taken up by lube, a vibrating ring to stimulate your partner, two different sets of herbs with fake promises to increase your sexual prowess, and (my favourite) TicTacs for your bad breath. Low self confidence, men of York?


The monkeys and politics of Gibraltar

While staying in Marbella, we made a delightful day-trip out to Gibraltar, that British rock clinging to the south of Spain.

When we were visiting Gibraltar we found out that Hayden had chickenpox. Happily we could use the rare situation of being in an English-speaking country to purchase medicine, but unhappily, after the pharmacy had closed for the day Hayden's medicine was stolen by a monkey. In fact, this monkey:

The barbary macaques are the most famous residents of Gibraltar. Irritatingly, everywhere they are referred to as Rock Apes or the apes of Gibraltar, despite clearly being monkeys and not apes. These monkeys are the only wild non-human primates in Europe, although many tourists obviously struggle with the concept of "wild". Despite many signs and verbal warnings given about the monkeys being wild and biting people who get too close, we saw many visitors touching them. One little boy even went up and hugged a large adult male. Okay, he was young, and years of soft toy monkeys would obviously confuse him, but the idiotic parents just pushed their other son over to take a group photo. Fortunately, there was a local nearby who yelled at the parents to get their children away before the "ape" gave them a lesson in natural selection.

"I can see Africa from my house". View of Jebel Musa, Morocco, from the top of the rock.

Gibraltar was captured from the Spanish in 1704, and while it was officially ceded to the UK in 1713 "in perpetuity", Spain has long wanted the mountain territory back. Oddly enough, for a rock surrounded by Spain and far from the motherland, the citizens of Gibraltar are enormously, defiantly, British. They are certainly far more British than anyone living in, for example, Britian - I doubt England, Scotland or Wales would get a vote of nearly 99% to stay part of the UK. It was probably heightened by the Diamond Jubilee and the royal visit that weekend, but the number of flags flying over the city was even greater than you see at a 4th of July picnic in America.

I was talking to our guide in Istán about the issue of soverignity over Gibraltar, and while he said that he personally would not shed any blood over Gibraltar, it was a hot button topic within Spain, that the area should rightfully go back to Spain, regardless of the feelings of the residents. When I asked about Ceuta and Melilla (two Gibraltar-like outposts on the coast of Morocco, occupied by Spain), he responded "We have a saying in Spain, what does a pig have to do with speed?" The answer, of course, being "nothing", as if the British enclave in Spain and the Spanish enclave in Morocco drew no parallels. When I asked whether Ceuta and Melilla should be given back to Morocco, he said of course not, since the residents want to be Spanish. 

Personally, I think the principle of the residents' right to determine their own soverignity is correct, so I'll agree with Spain over the Ceuta-Melilla issue and with the UK on Gibraltar. But it is not only Spain that is being hypocritical - the UK uses the "residents' right" argument for Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, but consistently denies the use of that argument by the residents of South Ossetia to gain independence from Georgia. As I commented earlier, there is only one country in the world that has consistently applied the "residents' right" argument to both South Ossetia and Kosovo, so I don't give the UK much credit for applying it solely in those cases where it is beneficial to them.