Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

The Old Comrades:

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Support it on Earth, oppose it on Libertaria

I am glad that Adrian Smith has won his case against his employer, Trafford Housing Trust. These links give the story:

- Christian wins case against employers over gay marriage comments (The Guardian)

- Social media, employment, religious views and freedom of speech (Law & Religion UK, a specialist blog.) This link makes that point that although Mr Smith's Facebook page did identify him as an employee of the Trafford Housing Trust, no reasonable observer would suppose that Mr Smith's opinions represented the Trust's opinions.

- Facebook gay wedding comment man wins demotion case (BBC)

Adrian Smith lost his managerial position, had his salary cut by 40%, and was given a final written warning by Trafford Housing Trust (THT) after posting in February last year that gay weddings in churches were "an equality too far".

The comments were not visible to the general public, and were posted outside work time, but the trust said he broke its code of conduct by expressing religious or political views which might upset co-workers.

Given that "might upset co-workers" could apply to just about any conceivable opinion, and that his actual words were almost comically mild, I am not surprised that there was a widespread sense that Trafford Housing Trust could not be allowed to set a precedent. In the end the judge went so far as to regret in public that for technical legal reasons he could not award Mr Smith any more than a token sum on top of his old job back.

All in all this was one instance where a probing attack by the Creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions was overconfident and was repulsed. I think it likely that the same will prove true of the UKIP fostering case mentioned in Johnathan's post from Sunday.

Nonetheless, I feel obliged to note that in a free society employers would have the right to make their offer of a job conditional upon an employee shutting up utterly about his personal opinions, or vowing slavish adherence to the opinions of his employers however stupid, or wearing a pink carnation up his nose, or being black, homosexual, Muslim, Nazi or all of the above. Not that I would believe such demands would be at all common. Most people, naturally, would elect to work for a less controlling employer - and in a free society we would not be in the position that so many jobs were in the gift of the government or its proxies. The Trafford Housing Trust is one of these deniable chimeras that have spawned under every rock lately; half "charity", half government.

Monday, November 26, 2012
Let's use nuclear weapons!

Look, I want you to know that if I thought there was the slightest chance that it was really going to happen my first reaction to this story would probably not have been to say "Cool".

Lord Gilbert Suggests Dropping A Neutron Bomb On Pakistan-Afghanistan Border

Even cooler: he is a former Labour defence minister.

Responding for the government Lord Wallace said the coalition did not share the "rumbustious views" of Gilbert.

Thursday, November 22, 2012
More scientific enquiry

This is more like it! Via Tim Worstall, may I direct the natural philosophers among you to study some exciting new research from xkcd, wisest of the sages of the internet:

"Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Deciding scientific questions the modern way

The Guardian wished to host a debate on the question 'Is there a gay gene?'

In the spirit of modern scientific enquiry, the experts to whom the newspaper turned in order to examine this question were Julie Bindel, a freelance journalist and political activist, and Paul Burston a journalist and author of the novel The Gay Divorcee.

I have little knowledge and no very strong opinion on the question. We will find out one day and I suspect the answer will be complex. No strong opinion, but I was gripped by their debate. Not because of their insights into genetics, obviously. Their examination of their own memories and feelings as gay people, though unable to provide an answer to the question of whether there is a gene for homsexuality, did at least provide two "survey responses", so to speak, to the broad question of whether homosexuality is inborn or acquired, a question which might well be partly answerable by self examination by homosexuals. Correction, one survey response. Julie Bindel just said that people cannot remember being babies. I did not see the relevance of this.

She also seemed to resent any attempt to have the question she was there to debate researched by anyone who might actually be able to answer it, judging by the scare quotes she put around "cause" and "condition" in the second paragraph of her article. ('And despite the obsession of some scientists to find a "cause" for our "condition"...') She felt all that was her gig, I suppose.

No,what really fascinated me about this debate was the the assumption shared by both that the way to determine what is true is to decide which hypothesis best advances their political goals. Even that was interpreted in a narrow, tactical sense, and in a shape determined by their opponents. Bindel writes,

So when people say "If being gay was a choice then why would we choose to live a life where oppression, violence and discrimination are inevitabilities?", I say to them so is being a feminist in countries where sexism exists, but they still exist and persevere. It is about wanting to be part of creating a better world.

Some gay people might feel that finding a gay gene might diminish prevalent homophobia, but this is naive. Racism has not diminished because we know that blackness or whiteness is genetic.

Burston counters:
What concerns me is that, all too often, people who claim that homosexuality is a choice are the same people who stand in the way of lesbian and gay equality. If it's a choice, they argue, then we only have ourselves to blame.
Proof by Aspiration. Disproof by Bad Company. Ms Bindel and Mr Burston may oppose each other, but both have understood the spirit of the age.

Thursday, November 15, 2012
A twist on the tragedy of the commons

James Rummel of Chicagoboyz posted this sad but telling photo essay about what happened when a hobo moved into a shed next to a restaurant that had closed down.

Strictly speaking, I wouldn't call this a tragedy of the commons, more a tragedy of the consequence of poorly enforced property rights. The events James Rummel describes could just as easily happen here; the recent changes in the law that made squatting in residential properties a criminal offence do not apply to commercial buildings. Of course squatters can be evicted by civil proceedings as before, but it is not an easy process.

I would guess that the sympathies of most Samizdata readers will be with the property owner - and so they should be. To be stuck with a deteriorating building that is costing you money every day that goes by is no joke. Quite soon, I would guess, a point of no return is passed beyond which it becomes uneconomical to even try to make the building attractive to a potential buyer or tenant, particularly if, as in this case, someone is actively subverting any attempt to do that. To rub salt in the wound, you can bet that all your nice well-meaning neighbours are tut-tutting at what a heartless slum landlord you are, leaving that fine building to decay. Large numbers of people apparently do believe that landlords let buildings decay for the fun of it. Here are some of them, in the comments to another Guardian article by the same Ally Fogg whose article about the man arrested for burning a poppy I was praising the other day.

However sympathy need not be a zero sum game. Sympathy for the landlord should not preclude sympathy for the homeless man. Many factors can make a man or woman homeless; drink, drugs. unemployment and shattered relationships among them. It is also possible, or even probable, that the hobo's plight, as much as the landlord's, was ultimately caused by official contempt for property rights. Henry Hazlitt's "Economics in One Lesson" is more than half a century old now, but the lesson still hasn't been learned.

It may reach a point where many landlords not only cease to make any profit but are faced with mounting and compulsory losses. They may find that they cannot even give their property away. They may actually abandon their property and disappear, so they cannot be held liable for taxes. When owners cease supplying heat and other basic services, the tenants are compelled to abandon their apartments. Wider and wider neighborhoods are reduced to slums. In recent years, in New York City, it has become a common sight to see whole blocks of abandoned apartments, with windows broken, or boarded up to prevent further havoc by vandals. Arson becomes more frequent, and the owners are suspected.
That passage was describing the effect of rent controls. Other restrictions on the property rights of landlords, such as ever-stricter demands as to maintenance and compulsory inspections, making it extremely difficult to evict a non-paying tenant, or forbidding tenancies with short notice periods even by mutual agreement, work a little more slowly but get to the same sorry result in the end. When the government penalises landlords it also penalises tenants and those who would like to be tenants but cannot find a place to rent.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012
The consolations of philosophy: Edmund Burke was a prophet without honour in his own time

I did not write what follows. It was sent to me by my regular correspondent, "ARC". - NS

When I first started reading Edmund Burke, it was for the political wisdom his writings contained. Only many years later did I start to benefit from noticing that the Burke we know - the man proved a prophet by events and with an impressive legacy - differed from the Burke that the man himself knew: the man who was a lifelong target of slander; the one who, on each major issue of his life, gained only rare and partial victories after years or decades of seeing events tragically unfold as he had vainly foretold. Looking back, we see the man revered by both parties as the model of a statesman and thinker in the following century, the hero of Sir Winston Churchill in the century after. But Burke lived his life looking forwards:

- On America, an initial victory (repeal of the Stamp Act) was followed by over 15 years in the political wilderness and then by the second-best of US independence. (Burke was the very first member of parliament to say that Britain must recognise US independence, but his preferred solution when the crisis first arose in the mid-1760s was to preserve - by rarely using - a prerogative power of the British parliament that could one day be useful for such things as opposing slavery.)

- He vastly improved the lot of the inhabitants of India, but in Britain the first result of trying was massive electoral defeat, and his chosen means after that - the impeachment of Warren Hastings - took him 14 years of exhausting effort and ended in acquittal. Indians were much better off, but back in England the acquittal felt like failure.

- Three decades of seeking to improve the lot of Irish Catholics, latterly with successes, ended in the sudden disaster of Earl Fitzwilliam's recall and the approach of the 1798 rebellion which he foresaw would fail (and had to hope would fail).

- The French revolutionaries' conquest of England never looked so likely as at the time of his death in 1797. It was the equivalent of dying in September 1940 or November 1941.

It's not surprising that late in his life he commented that the ill success of his efforts might seem to justify changing his opinions. But he added that "Until I gain other lights than those I have", he would have to go on being true to his understanding.

Of course, the background to these thoughts is reflecting on the US election result. Reflecting on how much worse it was for Burke is consoling. Choosing to be truthful in politics often means choosing to be justified by long-term events not short-term elections.

Two weeks before, I'd have guessed a Romney victory with some confidence, but the night before the election, I realised - rather to my surprise - that I expected Obama to win. I took myself to task over these negative thoughts, but it made no difference: I still expected Obama to win. On Wednesday morning, I was glad that being British gave me some feeling of insulation from it (not that our own government has been anything to shout about for a long time - shout at, maybe), although I fear the ill consequences will not all be confined to the far side of the pond.

Burke was several times defeated politically - sometimes as a direct result of being honest - and later (usually much later) resurged simply because his opponents, through refusing to believe his warnings, walked into water over their heads and drowned, doing a lot of irreversible damage in the process. Even when this happened, he was not quickly respected. By the time it became really hard to avoid noticing that the French revolution was as unpleasant as Burke had predicted, all the enlightened people knew he was a longstanding prejudiced enemy of it, so "he loses credit for his foresight because he acted on it", as Harvey Manfield put it. Similarly, when ugly effects of Obama's second term become impossible to ignore, people like you and me will get no credit from those to whom their occurrence is unexpected because we were against him "anyway".

Even eight years is a shorter time than any of Burke's epochs. If the euro dies in less than another four years, maybe we should think ourselves very lucky. In our health service, the ratio of administrators to doctors and nurses passed 100% much longer ago than four years or even eight, and the NHS is still a sacred cow. Perhaps US citizens should think themselves lucky that adverse effects of ObamaCare may show soon and be noticed.

Since Burke was admired by Churchill, here's a Churchill quote: "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm."

And a related Burke one: "The conduct of a losing party never appears right: at least, it never can possess the only infallible criterion of wisdom to vulgar judgments, - success."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012
28 names to save the world

Blogger Tony Newbery of Harmless Sky tried to use the Freedom of Information Act to get the BBC to reveal who were the people present at a certain seminar whose advice led the BBC to decide to adopt a pro-AGW stance. The BBC described this decisive seminar as being graced by 'some of the best scientific experts'. Newbery had a suspicion that there were many fewer experts and many more activists than the BBC made out. One out of the few - and I think that means one out of the one - people present at the seminar with views outside the consensus, Richard D North, said as much. Presumably North either had kept no record of the exact attendance list or had an obligation to keep it confidential. The BBC really did not want to say. Representing himself, up against the BBC's six lawyers, Newbery, not surprisingly, lost his case at the Information Tribunal. The fact that one of the lay judges had strong views against "deniers" probably didn't help. Though he had started an appeal, the point became moot when Maurizio Morabito of Omnologos found the list anyway by clever use of the Wayback Machine. Watts Up With That, Bishop Hill, and Guido all have posts. Summary: Newbery was right.

They're all there; Greenpeace, the New Economics Foundation, the Gaian branch of the Church of England, someone from Greenpeace China, bods from Stop Climate Chaos and Tearfund, Jon Plowman, Head of Comedy

What? Head of Comedy? Yes. One of the aims of this series of seminars was to "take this coverage [international affairs, including climate change] out of the box of news and current affairs, so that the lives of people in the rest of the world, and the issues which affect them, become a regular feature of a much wider range of BBC programmes, for example dramas and features."

Note that even some of the sciency sounding names and job titles listed are not exactly the hardest of the hard. According to the comments at Bishop Hill among the list there is a Senior Lecturer from the OU focussing on environmentalism and politics, a Geography PhD with an interest in conservation and human rights and a lucky undergraduate from Harvard specialising in documentary film making.

Why it matters.

Fun fact: all the four big-name resignations from the BBC over the last few days (Peter Rippon, Steve Mitchell, Helen Boaden and George Enwistle) were present. Someone somewhere (I've lost the link, I'm afraid) mentioned the Private Eye occasional feature "Curse of Gnome".

Balen Report next, then!

Monday, November 12, 2012
The kraken wakes

Despite its obvious potential for oppression, for the first twenty years or so of its existence the Malicious Communications Act 1988 did not seem to do much harm. At least, if it did, I did not read about it. If I am wrong on this, tell me, but on the few occasions that I heard about prosecutions under the Act they seemed to be cases like this one where a man sent out emails purporting to be from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami falsely telling people that their relatives had been killed. That is certainly fraud, and something like assault, and I would argue that it is not a freedom of speech issue. "Malicious communication" seems a fair description.

You are not safe just because a monster sleeps. Circa 2006 the government rediscovered the Act and decided to give it some exercise. In the period 2006-2010 the number of people against whom proceedings were launched followed this pattern: 182, 251, 329, 507, 694.

The latest? Here is a story from the BBC: 'Canterbury man arrested over burning poppy image'. He is not a Muslim apparently, and it is another reflection of the decline of free speech that my assumption that the BBC's unnamed "Canterbury man" was left unnamed to conceal him being a Muslim was a perfectly reasonable one. In fact Linford House, 19, is a non-Muslim, white rugger bugger.

There is a good article by Ally Fogg in the Guardian: Arrested for poppy burning? Beware the tyranny of decency.

Saturday, November 10, 2012
Zig, hurl, zag, hurl.

The BBC is like a drunk zig-zagging down the street, throwing up on the left because last time he threw up on the right.

It declined to run a Newsnight programme alleging that one of its own dead stars, Jimmy Savile, carried out multiple acts of child sexual abuse, on grounds of insufficient evidence. The evidence was sufficient for ITV, which broke the story.

Facing criticism for its timidity from all sides someone at the BBC had a really great idea about how to make amends... run a Newsnight programme alleging that someone else carried out multiple acts of child sexual abuse, and do it on near as dammit no attempt to gather evidence whatsoever. And this time pick someone still alive and able to sue because it's more glorious that way. The makers of the programme seem to have thought that by not actually naming Alistair McAlpine in so many words they would be immune from the laws of libel. You would think that the training of journalists (the BBC's is meant to be world class) would include the fact that any indirect statement capable of being understood by the average reader is by that very fact capable of bearing a defamatory imputation.

The left wing Guardian comes out better than most in this affair; it said on November 9th that this was a case of mistaken identity.

One can see the appeal of this story from the BBC's point of view. Third, it would be a belated show of anti-paedo crusading zeal; second it would add weight to the BBC's "everybody was at it in the 70s" defence of its record in allowing Savile to get away with his crimes for decades, despite persistent rumours and allegations, and first, oh very much first, Lord McAlpine was a senior Tory from the Thatcher era. That made the story too good to check. Specifically, to good to waste time either with contacting Lord McAlpine, who might have mentioned if asked that he lived in the South of England during the period in which he was alleged to be regularly abusing boys in North Wales, or with showing a picture of Lord McAlpine to the man who claimed to have been abused by him, Steve Messham. Having now seen a picture, Mr Mesham has stated that Lord McAlpine was not the man whom he alleges abused him.

So now Entwistle's gone. ITV would be looking good in comparison were it not for the efforts of Phillip "Paedofinder General" Schofield. Really, one would expect no better from the BBC's top investigative team but what is the world coming to when you can't even trust ex-children's TV presenters to back up their allegations? While it is true that the internet has made it quicker to research a story, three minutes is even now not usually considered quite time enough.

The BBC and ITV have made what may turn out to be a very expensive mistake (and I doubt that the Guardian's George Monbiot has slept well these last few nights), but it would be unfair to lambaste the media and let their audience off scot-free. Why do so many people seem to flip between denial and paranoia with no intervening pause for thought? What is it about the human mind that seems to prefer any extreme to the idea of judging each individual case on its individual facts?

Wednesday, November 07, 2012
"It's a funny old world."

They say that's what Margaret Thatcher said, the day she fell. I was in the small crowd that watched as the car brought her back from the Commons to Downing Street, a self-conscious little crowd, split about fifty-fifty between sympathisers and opponents, the sort of crowd from which occasional shouts pop out like kittens nervously venturing forth from a cardboard box. I did not shout either to jeer or console; I was only there because at the time I worked in the Treasury building in the next street and wanted to see a little history being made.

It might cheer up any American readers saddened by the result of the recent US election to recall that the first shot in the fusillade that brought the Prime Minister down was this:

On 1 November 1990 Geoffrey Howe, the last remaining member of Thatcher's original 1979 cabinet, resigned from his position as Deputy Prime Minister over her refusal to agree to a timetable for Britain to join the European single currency.
Howe thought he was making straight the path down which the forces of modernity would march, but he didn't know the future any more than Thatcher did, or you, or I. I'll tell you something, though, his political delusion on 1 November 1990 regarding the desirability of currency union looks a lot more foolish now than her personal delusion that she would still have the key to No.10 Downing Street a few weeks later.

That's the trouble with the future. It won't stay put.

Today we are hearing much (in tones of glee or despair) about how "a permanent Democratic majority" is emerging, an oligarchy dispensing patronage to fiefdoms of class and race that will only fall when the money runs out, and then with vast misery and perhaps bloodshed. Similar predictions are made for the UK and other developed countries. I do fear that, but a tempering memory, again from my Treasury days in the early nineties, is of seeing earnest policy papers written by Conservative MPs who worried that in order to preserve democracy it might be needful for the Conservative party to split into two, because it was obvious that Labour was never getting back in.

I cannot say quite what I am aiming to do in this post, other than possibly bore some harried souls into tranquility with my recollections des élections perdues and similar political ups and downs. Just saying, it's a funny old world.

I posted this as a Samizdata Quote of the Day:

"The People have spoken, the bastards."
- Attributed to Dick Tuck.

Sunday, November 04, 2012
"The good news," Cuomo said of the promised 12 million gallons, "is it's going to be free."

Goodness, who could have guessed that an official announcement telling people hit by a natural disaster to come and get oodles of free stuff, then telling the resulting crowd that their turn would not come for eight hours would cause any trouble?

A Cuomo-administration source blamed the mix up on the military. “They told us. We simply conveyed the information provided by them,” the source said. “We had nothing to do with the execution. We didn’t select the sites. It wasn’t our trucks. It wasn’t our people. It’s not our fault.” Cuomo’s office took the offer off its Web site later in the day.
Heaven preserve public order from its defenders. Still, one must admit that without the government and the military there would be anarchy on the streets. At least the citizens were protected from 'price gouging'.

Saturday, November 03, 2012
Talking of anniversaries... A year ago today I posted Discussion Point XXXVI
What will happen to the Euro? I am not asking "what should happen", but what will happen. Take this opportunity to put your predictions on the internet, and later be hailed as a true prophet or derided as a false one.
Come, take your bows, or your lumps, and predict anew. The fat lady has not yet sung.

Friday, November 02, 2012
That Lena Dunham may be onto something

You may have heard that the Yanks are having some sort of election.

You may have even heard that a minor celebrity called Lena Dunham made a political advertisement in support of the candidacy of Mr Obama. This production gave rise to hostile comment from Mr Romney's supporters, which the Democrats claim was motivated by prudery but the Republicans claim was motivated by disquiet at Ms Dunham's apparent assumption that the main hope of American maidens is to receive their lord's seigneurial favour and be kept by him thereafter.

Admit it, though, the ad is funny. She has great comic timing, and the way she rattles out her spiel at speed while still managing to do recognizable parodies of the way people really talk shows she has all the observational skills one would expect from a talented scriptwriter. That is an aspect of the ad which has received less attention than it should. Ms Dunham's particular gift is meant to be that she can write a script that reflects how women live today, on the understanding that 'women' means urban American women of her own class and race.

So Lena Dunham the great observer went out and observed this. Listen from 0:30 for the next five seconds:

It's a fun game to say, "who are you voting for?" and they say, "I don't want to tell you," and you say, "No, who are you voting for?" and they go, "Guess."
So even among the sort of people who Lena talks to there are enough Romney voters who don't want to say so for her to find that coy response worth parodying? That could explain certain oddities in the polls.

Good news: only the poor will really suffer from global warming

Assuming that global warming really is happening, and really is caused by man, the rich will get off nearly scot free, as usual.

Ain't that great!

The reason that it truly is good news for all humanity is that, whereas we have scarcely an inkling as to how to stop global warming, and our efforts to change human behaviour so as to mitigate it show an unbroken record of failure in all aspects save that of making new pretexts for tyranny, we do now know how to end poverty.

Hell, we've done it, in the rich world. Clue's in the name.

If you are poor in the rich world, and are annoyed at me for saying this, do feel free to write in and complain. Email in, I mean, on your computer using your broadband connection or the one provided for free in a public library.

Hell, we've got halfway to doing it in great swathes of what was once the poor world. Last month I read about some Parisian hotel developer who caused outrage when he said his exclusive new hotel wouldn't be open to Chinese tourists. Then he backtracked in a hurry and said "he was referring to 'mass tourism' when he used the phrase 'Chinese tourists'." Yes, I know hundreds of millions of Chinese are still poor, but think of how far we have come when a snob thinks of the Chinese when he denigrates 'mass tourism'. Think of how far we have come when the outrage is expressed by Chinese internet users.

Hell, but hell on earth is getting less hellish by the day. There is harder evidence for this than my little anecdote above. Look up worldwide life expectancy statistics. This despite the mad folly of the economic policy of practically every government in the world. We have got so stonkingly, gobsmackingly, tingle-down-your-leggingly good at poverty reduction over the last few decades that we can even do it with socialism round our necks. Just think what we could achieve without that millstone.

We could exterminate the poor as a class. Would that not be agreeable? Quote me on that, you global warming activists who divide your time between Copenhagen and New York; I find the poor tiresome and would rather not have them around any more. I'd rather have all the Chinese, and all the Indians, and all the Africans getting rich and flying to London to take pictures of each other in front of London landmarks, in rotation if need be. It might cause a bit of global warming. Never mind, we rich folk can live with that.