Sunday, August 23, 2020

Herd immunity

When they first said "herd immunity", most people, including journalists, unfortunately nodded like Owl in Winnie the Pooh, and said, "Ah yes, herd immutinoony. Of course." There are two ways to that - have the virus endemic in the population already, or have vaccination at a level that there's nobody to pass it onto. There was no vaccine. So the government's initial "let's go for herd immunity" meant "let's have everybody catch it". Some right wing commentators even evoked the idea of chicken pox parties. But at that stage, with a hospitalisation rate of potentially 15%, and an ICU requirement of maybe 20% of that, you're looking at pushing 3% of the population - potentially 2 million people -through intensive care within a few months, each for likely over a week. There are, according to a quick scan of some government stats (https://www.england.nhs.uk/statistics/statistical-work-areas/critical-care-capacity/critical-care-bed-capacity-and-urgent-operations-cancelled-2019-20-data/) about 6000 critical care beds in England. You save maybe half if you can protect the vulnerable - though no mention was made of that to begin with. But even without C19, occupation of these beds runs at over 80%, and people won't stop having heart attacks etc .... The maths here is so obvious. When I heard about the plan, I didn't need to do a calculation to work out that the NHS would not survive on the basis of what we knew, and quite possibly neither would the infrastructure of the country. That it should have even been contemplated as a way forward was a massive demonstration of the incompetence of the government. That they have been allowed to get away with it is a massive demonstration of the incompetence of the media.

I just discovered this as a draft in my blogger account, having written it in the last week of March, and then it having been overtaken by events, so I didn't publish it.

Interesting, though.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Submission to authorities, part 2

I suspect that not many people were convinced by my blogpost which set out my view that the authorities to which we should be submitting are not any particular political party, but the whole political system under which we find ourselves.
As supporting evidence, I would like to point out some of the people who we Christians tend to think of as heroes of the faith.
William Wilberforce
Martin Luther King Jr
Dietrich Bonhoffer
All of those would be cited approvingly from non-conformist pulpits. There are also non-Christians (or people whose faith is less overt) who we tend to regard positively in the same way, such as:
Nelson Mandela
Mahatma Ghandi
All of them challenged the political system in which they found themselves.
Had we been there, would we have been saying to them, "You need to submit to the authorities - in other words, you can't challenge the ruling parties!" Because that's pretty much what Christian conservatives are telling us today. But with the benefit of hindsight, we look back on what they did and say that they were absolutely right to challenge what they faced.
So, on what basis can you say that they were right and those people challenging the Tories or the Republicans now are wrong to do so? Would we have been wrong to have aligned ourselves with them?

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Submission to authorities



This is a pretty blunt and unambiguous instruction, from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. And yet, I’ve been (and still am) pretty vocally opposed to the Conservative party in power. How do I square my commitment to obedience to the Word of God with respect to being subject to the authorities with my opposition to the Tory government?


The short answer is that I don’t believe the governing party are the authority in this country. The actual authority is the whole constitutional system. What do I mean by that? I mean the mixture of laws and conventions that have been established over the centuries. WITHIN THAT FRAMEWORK, the governing party are elected for a period of time to exercise a specific role. They DON’T have the freedom to restructure the constitution, to rule as they would choose – in other words, the governing party is clearly also “under authority”. They are elected to set the government agenda in accordance with their manifesto. They are able to deliver their manifesto, in accordance with their majority within the House of Commons, with oversight from the House of Lords, and subject to the Crown – which doesn’t mean Queen Elizabeth II: it means, in effect, recognising that they are not “in charge”, but have a temporary role in the system. The courts have a part in this as well. The party of government does not have authority which overrides the courts, because the courts decide what is acceptable WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK, and the governing party abide by that. The media have a responsibility as well – it’s not to “capture the mood” of the population, as government-run bots would have us believe at the moment: it should be to report what is happening in a trustworthy and independent way, so that the electorate (who are also a part of the system) can make informed decisions.

All of this is “the authority”; it’s “the rule of law”; it’s the framework within which our country runs. Or should run. Why is this the case? All these checks and balances have grown up over the years to prevent individuals or groups from taking too much power. The concept of free and fair elections is not fundamentally to get the best people into power – if so, why bother with an opposition? It’s actually to LIMIT power. That is the authority that we have – not the governing party. The opposition aren’t an inconvenience: they are part of the system, and the more effective they are at limiting the ability of the governing party, the less permission the governing party has from the system to make changes. That’s deliberate, to limit power, and prevent its abuse. The courts aren’t an inconvenience: they are the system protecting itself from being destroyed or abused within frameworks that have grown up over decades. Press accountability is not an inconvenience: it’s the Fourth Estate preventing the abuse of power.

So what does it mean for me to submit to the governing authorities? It means that I participate in the socio-political process in accordance with what is established. Am I allowed to vote against the government, or do I have to “submit” to them once elected? I can vote. Can I speak out against the government? Yes. Can I demonstrate? Yes. Can I stand as a candidate against the governing party? Yes. Can I write letters, write blogs, try and persuade people of alternative points of view? Yes. All of those things are permitted (at the moment) within the framework – all are legitimate ways of behaving under the governing authority (which is the constitution, not the discretion of the Conservative Party, or whoever else has a majority in the Commons). Should I pray for the governing party - or, for that matter, anybody else with authority? Of course! But that doesn't mean it is wrong for me as a Christian to critique its behaviour - was John wrong to call out Herod's behaviour? Was Jesus wrong to challenge the Pharisees? Was Paul wrong to apply his understanding of Roman law to his situation on multiple occasions?

Can I break the law in protest? Not according to that verse – breaking the law is no longer submitting to the governing authorities. What about if the law demands from me more than my Christian conscience permits? At the moment, that’s not the case in this country – but the Bible and church history argues both as doctrine and from example that where Christians end up in breach of the law, they can expect the authorities to punish them.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Avoid, trap, mitigate

Human factors training gives people strategies to deal with threats to safety and operational errors that may reduce safety margins. The framework is summarised in the title of this post ...

  • Avoid - design procedures to protect against possible threats and prevent errors being made which might reduce safety margins.
  • Trap - on the basis that there will be times when threats and errors nonetheless arise, design procedures so that they are identified quickly and dealt with before they have an impact on safety.
  • Mitigate - on the basis that some threats and errors will not be trapped, design procedures so that people are able to intervene swiftly to correct them and reduce their impact.
Let me give an example. When flying in the UK, ten thousand feet used to be referred to as "Flight level one zero zero", and eleven thousand feet as "Flight level one one zero." A difference of one word - but if an aeroplane was asked to descend to "flight level one one zero" but incorrectly heard "one zero zero" or read that back, then it could be descending to the level of another aeroplane.

I can't go into all the protections that are in place to reduce this threat. However, let me give an example of each of the three stages.
  • Avoid - the international standard changed the wording for ten thousand feet to "Flight level one hundred" - now it is very distinct from "flight level one one zero".
  • Trap - in multi crew aircraft, both pilots should hear an altitude clearance, it should be read back to air traffic control, who should check the correct altitude was read back. The handling pilot should set the altitude and get confirmation from the monitoring pilot to verify that it is in accordance with the clearance.
  • Mitigate - pilots are taught the fastest way to stop the aircraft from changing altitude (in an Airbus, for example, this consists of one button press on the autopilot control).
The same sort of processes apply in a healthcare context as well, as anybody who has experience of hospitals can tell. Processes are in place to avoid the possibility of giving drugs to the wrong person, making sure that the correct dose is given, and so on. This is all how safety management works.

Now, let's talk about how the government has failed to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.
  • Avoiding the threat of an international pandemic would have been making sure that investment in the NHS was maintained at a level that it didn't end up starved of resources every winter, that there was no staff shortage, making sure that there were good supply chains in place. It would have meant, following Exercise Cygnus, learning and applying lessons. For ten years, the Conservative government has failed to implement processes that would AVOID the threat of this sort of pandemic becoming a problem.
  • Trapping the threat could have taken place over the last ten weeks. We saw what was coming - what had happened in China, what started to unfold in Italy. We could have used that time to buy more PPE and check supplies of it, put in place international collaboration and information sharing at the very least. The government was too busy focusing on Brexit, and telling us how well prepared we were. No meaningful attempt to trap the threat was made.
  • Mitigating the threat when it arrived would have meant rapid intervention, to safeguard as many people as possible. That's what New Zealand did; it's what has limited the death toll in countries like Germany and South Korea. The impact of this could have been huge. In this article, Dominic Minghella points out that two thirds of the extra deaths were probably caused by this failure to mitigate the threat in those ten days.
It's quite possible that safety professionals - for example, the pilots in an air accident, staff in an operation - may be hailed as heroes for their efforts - for example to fly a damaged aircraft away from a school, deal with a cardiac arrest, or whatever. But regardless of how an accident unfolds, it is their job as safety professionals to apply their training to try and avoid, trap and mitigate threats to their situation.

The very least that should be expected of the government is that it should be trying to safeguard the lives of the electorate. The same human factors framework - avoid, trap, mitigate threats - can be applied to government. Rather than being held to account for this, the government continues to do all sorts of things - say "there was no way we could have foreseen this" (US intelligence were aware of it last November, and the general process of avoiding the threat should have been in place anyway), distract us with Johnson (he has not taken one for the team: he got ill because he didn't observe the government's own guidelines), and keep making promises of future performance (they are "ramping up" - when will they deliver on a single target they have given?!). The media are complicit in this; too few in the media are persistently challenging the government on its performance.

In a crisis, the population has to get behind the government - where else can it go? But this government, and for that matter the US federal government, has failed its population to a greater extent than almost any other government around the world - and it is going to continue to become more apparent for some time. The fact that so many people in the UK and US don't realise just how bad will have the awful consequence of many more thousands of avoidable deaths.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Clap for ...

You know who.
Firstly, I wish nobody ill from this virus. It's horrible, and dying fighting to breathe with nobody you know around you is an idea too horrendous to imagine. That includes our prime minister; I hope he recovers soon.
Secondly, his name is not "Boris". He is a prime minister, not your mate down the pub.
Thirdly, don't say that *I'm* politicising something. "Clap for Boris" was a blatantly political act in the first place - where do you think it came from?! It was a way of trying to co-opt the good feeling associated with the NHS and direct it towards the prime minister and the government. If you don't understand *how* that is political, you are one of the people that this government is shamelessly manipulating.
Johnson and his government have a grown-up job to do, which at the moment should at the very least be fighting for the lives of people in this country - that has to be a minimum requirement for a government, right?! That needs to still be happening even if one - or all! - of them isn't well. The political party running the country have made this much harder for themselves - which means that, yes, ultimately, they are causing people's deaths. How?
- by running down the NHS financially for the last 10 years;
- specifically by creating and stoking an environment hostile to ex-pat workers, draining medical staff from the NHS in the last five years;
- by wasting the 10 weeks effective notice we had failing to get the PPE and ventilators we required;
- by getting distracted for the last 10 days before the storm hit with poorly thought-out ideas about herd immunity;
- by undermining the civil service and reducing the availability and weight of expert advice;
- by prioritising a nationalistic, Brexit agenda over a co-operative one (refusing to take part in EU schemes which could have supported us, refusing to acknowledge other examples of international cooperation - did you know that other EU countries have helped to repatriate UK citizens? That China has sent emergency equipment and workers to this country?);
- by making loyalty to Brexit and willingness to take direction the requirement of being part of the government, rather than competence - and in fact, by creating an environment in which all the competent people left the conservative party;
- by refusing to draw on expertise in other political parties;
- by prioritising the interests of financial backers rather than the country;
- by not taking obvious steps, even when they were pointed out to them (there are still queues of people at the border at Heathrow);
- through "austerity" - which didn't extend to the super-rich - but which has left more people more financially vulnerable and more dependent.
The directors of communication in government don't want you to think about this. So instead, they quietly push the idea of "clap for Boris".

Friday, January 03, 2020

Christians and political involvement

It is true that as Christians it's our job to pray for those in authority. As Schaeffer might say, that's true truth, but it's not exhaustive truth - it's not the whole story.
For a start, who is "in authority" in our country? Is it the ruling party? What became apparent over the last few months is that hitherto, it has actually been the whole political system. The government, which doesn't just consist of the Conservatives, but also the civil service, exists (or existed) under the authority of parliament, the judiciary and the crown. When the governing party doesn't have a majority, that's not some mistaken fault in the system, that IS the system - it is how the system limits the power of a party that does not have a mandate from the electorate. Rather than pursuing policies that are divisive and don't have universal support, a party in that situation should be constrained to policies which command cross-party support. This system of government is what is in authority over us, and what we should be praying for - not just Johnson, not just the Conservatives, but for the whole structure that has been put in place by God for our good, of which this incarnation of the Conservative and Unionist Party is no more than a passing note.
One of my concerns about the Johnson regime is the way in which this structure was treated by him and his regime. Rees-Mogg lied to the queen - despised the crown - regarding the prorogation of parliament, the party sought to curtail parliamentary oversight, Johnson said the supreme court ruling was wrong. On multiple occasions, the Conservative party used executive authority to override the mechanisms of the state, specifically to prevent damage to itself (by suppressing reports which government mechanisms had produced). In other words, the Conservative party has sought to overturn every major component of our system of government, to guarantee their own authority. This was also included in their manifesto, and is what they are setting about now, in "reforming" the civil service, and with their plans to make high court judges political appointees. This is not democracy, this is not the authority of the system: it's the opposite, the usurping of that authority.
So what should we do? Who or what should we be praying for? I genuinely believe that in supporting the Conservative party as the ruling party, we are actually supporting a party which is seeking to overturn our government. The argument that we should not oppose those in authority, but pray for them, to my mind misunderstands the nature of authority and the rule of law in this country. It is not political parties that rule over us, it's the political and democratic system which has been established over centuries. The Conservatives are bent on scrapping this.
In a democracy, we have the right - in fact, as members of the electorate, the responsibility - to do something about this. We can oppose those who usurp power and corruption with our votes, with our legitimate protests, with commentary, in addition to praying for those in authority. We do not (yet) live in the regime of absolute power that Christians in the Roman empire did. In addition to volunteering for foodbanks (as Justin Welby suggests) it is legitimate to call out government policies which are resulting in poverty. In addition to supporting the homeless, we can point to what can be done to reduce homelessness. As Christians, we should not simply be socially and politically concerned, but we should not be less than socially and politically concerned.
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Monday, December 09, 2019

A vote for the Conservatives

So what's the Conservative message at the start of this election week?
This is basically a dogwhistle for xenophobic voters. The message is, vote for me, vote for Brexit, to get rid of foreigners.
But let's dig down a little and see what that means.
The other side of the coin is that UK migrants and visitors have been able to "treat the EU as if it's part of their own country". If you've ever had ...
a job in the EU,
or a holiday in Spain or Portugal or France or Croatia or Malta or Italy or Poland or the Netherlands
or done a booze cruise,
or gone to a football match abroad,
or had or stayed in a second home abroad
or even made a longhaul flight connection in the EU,
you've been "treating the EU as if it's part of your own country." EU visitors get one country. In return we get 30.
The third side of the coin is, I know those EU migrants. They are people I like and value as people. They are Ana, and Ewelina, and Jose, and Katarzyna, and Stefania, and Marina, and Rubio, and Aleksandra, and Aleksandra, and Jana, and Lluis, Heidi, Aneta, Vibeke and Henrik. They are work colleagues, the people in the supermarket and the cafe, people I play Pokemon with, people in church. The list could go on, sorry if I've missed you out, friends. What is exactly the problem with them treating the UK as if it's part of their own country? If they came to my house, I'd be happy with them treating my house as if it's part of their own house.
And given that Sharon and Rob, Diane and Andrew, Alan and Jane, Alan and Jackie have made other countries their home because of freedom of movement - it's been a two way process - I just don't see what the problem is.
Johnson, in these words, is saying because of this vague, xenophobic idea that "EU migrants feel at home here", as though that's a bad thing, all this should end.
If you vote for the tories, you're voting to end this.
You're voting to get rid of my friends and colleagues.
Deliberately. That's what Johnson is telling you it's for.
You're voting to take their freedom away.
And you're voting to take my freedom away.
And you're voting to take your own freedom away.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Grace

I want to talk a bit about grace, because I think a lot of the time I don't really get it. From a Christian point of view, we have plenty of songs which major on grace ("Amazing grace", "Wonderful grace", "Grace, grace, grace", "By grace alone somehow I stand"), we have churches (Grace Baptist, Grace Community ... and so on), and of course as believers in the Protestant tradition, we follow Luther and the reformers and the apostle Paul in asserting that we are saved by grace alone. But I think we end up a bit muddled after that. What does it actually mean? What am I supposed to do with it? How should I live as a result? I think a lot of that may be because when we think about it, we tend to focus on ourselves. What happens when instead we start from God?

What does grace mean to the giver?

I guess the point about grace is that it starts from love. This is something that is open to us to experience as human beings. The trouble is, the language of love is blurred today; we tend to think of it as being transactional - you do something for me, I do something for you. This idea of relationships is described in Ecclesiastes - not in an approving way, but as part of what life looks like "under the sun" - if you take God out of the equation. "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." As though the whole point of relationships is to make you stronger, a kind of evolutionary strategy.

But that's not what love is. Love makes you weaker.  Or perhaps slightly more accurately, love has a cost. You give yourself for the other person. For example, parents sacrifice their comfort, wealth, and sleep to care for children. For all the jokes about what we expect our children to do when we need to be cared for, both the parents and the children know that there's nothing the child is ever going to be able to do which will make up for what their parents have done for them. Other relationships are like that as well - although it may be the case that both parties in a relationship sacrifice themselves within it.

I think that's how we need to understand how God is towards us. He created us, he loves us - not in a way that he is ever going to get anything back from. In fact, in the same way that there's nothing a child can really do to give anything back to their parents, there is absolutely nothing we can give back to God - because it was he who gave it to us in the first place. There's more - because we have "sinned", rebelled against God, he actually needs to come and rescue us. The price of this, in Christian terms, is massive - God, in the person of Jesus, comes and gives up his life to save us from the consequences of our sin. In the same way that a parent would do anything, give anything for their children, or a lover would do anything, give anything for his or her beloved, God has done everything and given everything to save us.

But the significant question is, why? What does he get out of it? Is it some kind of power trip to get people to worship him? Well, if you are the creator of the universe and so on, you don't need to surrender yourself to achieve this. In the same way as the pagan kings in the Bible could simply pass a law commanding everyone to bow down to them, and couple it with a death sentence for those people who didn't, there's no reason that God could not have done that. "Worship me - and if you don't, you'll face my judgement." If you accept that he is the creator of the universe, then it's hard to say that this is an unreasonable position to take.

But he doesn't.

Instead he gives us everything, eventually even himself. He knows that as he gives us this, we have done nothing to deserve it, and there's nothing we can do to repay it. So why does he? The answer is, because he loves us. "I know you don't deserve it. I know you can't repay it. But I love you - so I am pouring this out upon you..."

How does one react to this? Remember, nothing you can give back will ever repay what you have been given - and that's not what God expects - in the same way that we don't tot up the debt our children have for us and present them with a bill, and we don't keep a kind of ledger of the good things and bad things that our lover does for us if we truly love them - we just give, because it's what we want to do. What do you want from someone you have poured out your grace on, out of love? I would suggest that you just want them to value it, to be thankful for it, to recognise it. You want don't want them to do anything, you just want to know that they understand what you have done for them, and value it.

Now, what happens if you don't value what someone has done for you? You can imagine a situation where children are ungrateful for what their parents have done - they don't appreciate it, or mock it, or whatever. Or no matter what a lover does, his or her beloved is indifferent and unmoved by it. Eventually, the heart of the person pouring out their grace will be broken, they will stop giving. Eventually, in a sense, this also becomes an act of grace - the final one - the child does not want the embarrassment of their parents showing their love; the way the lover pours out grace on the beloved when the beloved is indifferent is just awkward. Better in those circumstances for the grace to cease, to allow distance between the two parties. The parent, the lover has not stopped loving, but unrequited love ultimately goes nowhere. 

So what should grace mean to us?

I suppose we need to grasp the nature and meaning of grace, in the first place. God's grace to us means that there is nothing we can give back - for our life, for our salvation. Anything we have to offer God is what he has already given us - it's his already. And he's not looking for you to "give anything back" to him. Or "give anything" to him at all. He simply wants you to understand and value what he's given you.

Again, it helps to think about this in terms of human relationships. What would the beloved do if the lover pours out grace upon them? They would simply love back. They would recognise how much they have been given, and be simply devoted in return. They don't need to do anything - the lover doesn't give a list of rules that need to be obeyed in return for their love - because they are simply pouring out their love. But even so, it is easy to see that there are ways of behaving in the light of that love which aren't an appropriate response to it. Parents don't approach their relationship with their children as a kind of quid pro quo thing - but everybody knows how awkward it is to see children who are ungrateful, who take what their parents give them for granted.

This imagery does exist in the Bible in more concrete form (eg. the book of Hosea) as well as in discussion about salvation by grace, and what the law means for people who have been saved. It's wrestled out in the New Testament as well - how are we supposed to live? What are we supposed to do? We are not called to live under the law, but that doesn't mean that what we do doesn't matter. There is a picture of what it is like when it goes wrong in both brothers in the story of the Prodigal Son - the younger brother takes for granted what his father has done for him - but the older brother is clearly resentful of his father as well - the same grace has been poured out on both of them, but the older brother talks about the fact that he has been "slaving" for him and "never disobeyed [his] orders" - this isn't the language of someone responding to love.

The image of the older brother was arguably the main point of the parable, addressed to the target audience - the Pharisees, who resented the fact that Jesus was drawing "sinners" back to God. Their lives had been based on keeping the rules, on proving they were good enough for God. But that was not how God had ever brought people to himself - he had always given salvation to his people. It's hard for those of us from a religious background to hold onto the fact that it's nothing that we have done that saves us - we tend to think, like the Pharisees, that we are pretty good - and lose sight of the fact that God has simply poured out his grace upon us because he loves us, even though there was nothing we could give to him. That's what we need to be holding onto.

This post is just musing; if there are theological errors, they are all mine.


Saturday, May 04, 2019

Local election results

The leaderships of both the Conservatives and the Labour Party have reportedly said that the message from the local elections is that "they should get on and deliver Brexit".

What actually happened in the local elections is that Brexit supporting parties (UKIP, Conservative, Labour) all lost seats, and Brexit opposing parties (Liberal, Green) gained seats. There was also a turning away from national parties towards local groups. So there is disillusion with national/international politics - but to describe this vote as an endorsement of the movement towards Brexit takes a level of pigheadedness and confirmation bias that in any merely safety-critical role would probably be fatal. The parody website, Newsthump is doing a better job than the main news outlets of cutting through the cant on this.

In the European elections, the picture will be different. That's because at the European elections, the groups who don't actually care about local politics but which just want out of the EU will come out to play (Brexit party) and the voters who don't actually care about local politics but which just want out of the EU will come out to vote. The main parties will still be hammered, but it won't look as unequivocally anti-Brexit as the local elections did.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Representative democracy?

In the last 24 hours, a single petition has attracted 700,000 signatures, and is now nudging a million total signatures. That's 1% of the total population in 24 hours, and say 2% of the voting population in total. The petition is very, very simple. "Revoke Article 50" - that is, stop the UK withdrawal from the EU.

The people who digitally sign the petition basically know that it's not going to change anything - the deal with government petitions is that over 100,000 signatures will mean that a petition will be "considered" for debate in parliament; that's the best that's on offer - but since parliament is largely preoccupied by the issue of Brexit anyway, the likelihood of this specific item receiving separate consideration is slim. The same goes, I imagine, for the people who are planning to march in London on Saturday in support of a new referendum. At this stage, it's unlikely to change anything - but people want the government to know that this is not happening in their name.

The justification for signing the petition is that for large numbers of people, their belief that the simplest and best way out of this mess is just to stop it, is not being articulated. The views of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave in the referendum are talked about continually - and the non-binding referendum has become binding, and the fact that we were told that arrangements for leaving would be agreed in advance has been ignored. If 2% of MPs expressed this view, 12 of them would have stood up in parliament and asked for the process to stop in the last few messy weeks. If even one person had stood up and articulated it, it might have been enough raising of a flag to get it on the table. But even the europhile LibDems instead have focussed on the expensive and dubious option of a second referendum. Revoking Article 50 is clearly not a less-than-1% option - but you wouldn't know that given the failure of any politicians to contemplate it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Project Fear

The funny thing about all the "project fear" statements is that people use it almost like being told something is bad makes the statement wrong in itself. "Bad effects of brexit? Project fear! Climate change? Project fear! Smoking causes cancer? Project fear! Not wearing a seat belt increases risk in road accidents? Project fear!" It's like invoking Hitler - "stop the argument, this is the trump card."

Oh, and another funny thing ... picking isolated statistics as a supposed refutation of project fear ... "Look at our employment rate! Project fear is wrong about Brexit. Look at the nice weather in Wales! Project fear is wrong about climate change. My uncle smoked for eighty years and didn't get cancer! Project fear is wrong about smoking. I know someone who knows someone who in an accident was thrown clear of a car and walked away without a scratch, when the car exploded and killed everyone else! Project fear is wrong about seatbelts."

Basically, I am sceptical that anybody who says "project fear" about anything is capable of serious critical thought. It's an anti-argument. But then since "An argument that feels right to me and fits what I want to believe must be as true for me as your argument is true for you", I guess that's what we should expect in a postmodern era.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Making LaTeX work

If you are a "normal" person, you've probably never heard of LaTeX (pronounced "lay-tech"). It's a text processing system in which, rather than WYSIWYG, you mark up your code as you write it, and then compile it - typically into a PDF. The appearance can be startlingly attractive - Donald Knuth, who is basically one of the people who invented computer science, apparently said that TeX, which underlies it, was intended for the creation of beautiful books — and especially for books that contain a lot of mathematics”. Beyond maths, its use extends to pretty much any field where you want to add content that is more than simple Roman text - chemistry, non-Latin characters, bibliographies...

The trouble is that it suffers from CompSci disease - which I think I can summarise as being that the assumption is made by most people using it that time spent learning about how to install and use it is time well spent - rather than simply time that is lost from the project that actually needs to be done. Error codes are opaque, software has hidden dependencies which mean that it doesn't work and won't tell you why not, and instructions assume that you will take delight in spending several evenings working through a tutorial gradually getting up to speed - rather than wanting basically to be able to do this NOW. LaTeX devotees in universities will demand that students or supervisees will do stuff in LaTex because "it gives the best results" - this feels like the CompSci equivalent of chucking a non-swimmer into the river above Niagara Falls ...

So what's the best way to do anything with LaTeX? I don't know the best way, but last night, I did manage to find one that works. I installed MiKTeX. Unlike TeXMaker and TeXworks (as a platform on its own - actually MiKTeX invokes TeXworks), it downloaded everything it needed to work straight away. Also, it automatically updated everything. Also, rather than grumbling when it needed something that it couldn't have (extra skills beyond the core functionality), it just went and found the library it needed on the internet. This basically brings LaTeX into the realm of normal computer users rather than computer specialists.

I then spent a while getting to grips with some of the basic instructions. The "Hello World" of LaTex looks like this:

\documentclass[12pt]{article}
\begin{document}
Hello world!
\end{document}

(Computer guys, do you know how INFURIATING it is when you install a package and even this doesn't work out of the tin???!!!)

Then, with a little more exploring, I came up with:

\documentclass[12pt]{article}
\usepackage{chemfig}
\begin{document}
\title{A \LaTeX\ Sampler}
\author{Joe Author}
\maketitle
\section{The first section}
\subsection{The first subsection}
Now is the winter of our discontent\\made glorious summer by this son of York \\ \\
\noindent
\texttt{Here is some teletype text}\\
\textbf{Here is some bold text}\\
\textit{Here is some italic text}\\


\chemfig{C(=[:0]C(-[:60]H)(-[:300]H))(-[:120]H)(-[:240]Cl)}
\begin{thebibliography}{1}
\bibitem {Shakespeare 1604}Shakespeare, W., \textit{Richard III}, Stratford, Reprinted 2016.
\end{thebibliography}
\end{document}
What bits and pieces do we have here? It includes ... how to invoke libraries (chemfig, in this case, for the molecule that it draws!!), how to create and display a title, sections and subsections, how to do bold, italic and fixed fonts, and how to set up a bibliography. I also found a usable online reference for LaTex, at Wikibooks.

Basically, this one post that I have written is what I was not able to find on the internet, which is "How to get up and running with LaTex fast, and have access to the information you need to make more progress with it."

Friday, March 02, 2018

Antibiotic resistance

The dangers of increasing antibiotic resistance are well known. It is impossible to use the NHS without becoming aware of the comprehensive warnings relating to the improper prescription and use of antibiotics. The danger is that improper use of antibiotics will result in antibiotic-resistant strains of harmful bacteria arising - and antibiotics, which have proved the mainstay of public health for fifty years, will no longer be effective.

People are less aware of agricultural use of antibiotics, to promote growth in healthy animals. Here is an article on the subject from Wikipedia, and here's an introductory article from The Guardian. Theoretically, the practice should be being reduced. This article from The Independent suggests that disturbingly, even antibiotics of last resort are still being used to promote growth.

There is no way of telling from meat labelling what role antibiotics have played in the rearing of animals. Some food suppliers are now drawing attention to their decision not to use antibiotics in farming (eg. Karro Food Group, who even sought to establish a trademark for antibiotic-free meat). A preferable way forward would be for meat from animals reared using antibiotics to promote growth to be labelled as such. I have started a petition (here is the link) suggesting this form of labelling.

This would promote consumer choice and information. Another issue is that when we leave the EU, the government has indicated that it wishes to have a comprehensive and liberal trade agreement with the USA. Use of antibiotics in meat-farming seems to be considerably more widespread there. A consumer regime which makes this visible would hopefully help in the fight against the growth of antibiotic resistance.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Live shows

The following are recommended ...

U2
Coldplay
Green Day
Talking Heads
Bruce Springsteen
REM
Queen
Take That