Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Latest Political Hoohah

When I reviewed David Cameron's options in an earlier blog item, I wrote:
"Tax cuts? Brown will get a tax cut in before the next election and then ask what the Tories are going to cut back on to pay for more tax cuts."

I never imagined that it would be done with such bare-faced cheek as Brown and Darling did this week!

Despite hopelessly misplaying his hand and boosting Cameron when he was on the ropes, Brown's position is still fairly strong as - regardless of some of the more febrile commentary - the UK economy is still ticking over nicely. Even if, as seems likely, the economic waters become choppier, it will be against a background of low inflation and low interest rates - very different from the nightmare scenario that Major faced in 1990 or Callaghan in 1979.

Cameron's next big stick to attack Brown with is the upcoming European Treaty. The press and the Tories have made a lot of fuss about how the Treaty is 90% the same as the previously proposed Constitution - and are demanding a referendum - as was promised by Labour for the Constitution. Brown's argument is that the UK will have specific opt-outs from the parts of the Treaty that he doesn't want.

At the moment, it's all up in the air; Cameron won't say what he specifically doesn't like in the Treaty because of the danger that Brown will come back with opt-outs for all those things. Equally, Brown's red-lines are a bit vague at the moment because the Treaty hasn't been finalised.

The opt-outs are, of course, the crucial point. If Brown can fillet the Treaty, as it applies to the UK, of anything controversial then Cameron's demand for a referendum will start to look silly. I don't believe that Brown will sign up for anything that plays into Cameron's hands because he has too much to lose now, and I can't see the other European governments trying to force his hand. The danger might be that something in the Treaty will be open to multiple interpretations...

Thursday, October 11, 2007


As I drove home, I discovered that the road all the way from the roundabout by the older Mersey tunnel up to the entrance to the newer Mersey tunnel was completely jammed - so there was little prospect of using the new tunnel.

In addition, a bus driver, who I assume had forgotten he was driving a 30-foot bus rather than a mini, had blocked the junction giving access to the old tunnel - causing the gridlock to spread back up Tithebarn Street - and preventing me getting to the old tunnel.

What was the cause of all this mayhem? A lorry had spilt caramel powder the entire length of the new tunnel and the police were worried that it would solidify if it got into the drains.
(Liverpool Echo)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

About the size of it

I've just read "About the size of it" by Warwick Cairns.

I found it in the science section of a bookshop, so I imagined it was going to be a bit cleverer than it was.

It was interesting to hear about all the units in different countries that are more or less a foot long or a pound in weight and how such measurements as shoe sizes, pints and train gauges evolved. I was previously unaware of the fact that the traditional US and UK measures were the same until 1824 when the UK gallon was resized to correspond to 10 pounds of pure water (supposedly to make shipping cargoes easier to calculate) as opposed to 8 pounds of wine. This is why the (so-called) traditional British pint is bigger than its American counterpart.

His arguments for why such sizes make sense in everyday life are very compelling. However, the underlying anti-metric tone gets a bit silly.

Yes, the fundamental unit of time in SI units is the second - but that doesn't mean that you can't use minutes and hours, they are defined in terms of the second. Yes, the base unit for length is the metre and there is no separate base unit for volume (because you can express volume as cubic metres) but no, that doesn't mean that you have to buys drinks at the bar in cubic metres any more than someone ordering a regular cola in McDonald's has to specify the volume.

He completely ignores one of the key features of the metric system (especially in its modern SI units form), which is the simplicity with which measurements can be manipulated and expressed.

1) A lorry has a cargo of 5120 boxes each weighing 198.5g - how much does the cargo weigh? 5120 x 198.5 = 1,016,320g; now, simply by shifting the decimal point, I can easily convert it to kg or tonnes.

2) A lorry has a cargo of 5120 boxes each weighing 7 ounces - how much does the cargo weigh? 5120 x 7 = 35,840 ounces; erm, best divide that by 16 to get pounds: 2240 pounds; what's that in more convenient units? well, it's a British (long) ton or 1.12 American (short) tons. So even when the numbers are nice round figures and add up to a standard unit: it's still a big faff!

The argument that different sorts of human things lend themselves to different sizes is well made and valid: the weights or volumes of food we want to buy pretty much conform to traditional measures such as a pound or a pint - and are meaningful in a handy, human, everyday sense; but saying that this undermines the metric system doesn't make sense to me.

If you reject his assertion that using metric means that everything has to be in multiples of ten, then there isn't a problem e.g. wine in the EU is sold in 750 ml bottles, a perfectly appropriate size for a wine bottle and completely metric.

In an industrialised world, things are transported, manufactured or processed in bulk and, in a digital age, they are tracked, measured and accounted for using computers; these things are best handled using the metric system. This should not, in my opinion, preclude people from asking for a pound of bananas and being sold a pound of bananas, but the idea that people should continue to insist that they will only measure the things they sell in pounds is just silly. If a chemist insisted on measuring out medicines in grains, you'd go elsewhere.

...and while we're at it Metric Myths.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


"Nearly a fifth of goods made and sold in China have been found to be sub-standard, Beijing has revealed... The inspections did not cover exported products that have caused a number of scandals this year, particularly in the US." (BBC News).

Of course, 20 years ago, the future of manufacturing was all about Quality - with Japanese working practices held up as the model: well-skilled, highly motivated, flexible workers; automation; quality control and quality assurance. The idea being that you reduce costs by reducing your manpower requirement and making your processes more efficient and less wasteful.

Then they discovered China (and to a lesser extent India) with unlimited supplies of low-cost workers. This rather changes the balance of the cost equation.

One of the factors driving the technological innovations of the past 250 years has been the relative shortage and high cost of manpower in the West - particularly in America.

Will automation and robotics stop developing if it's cheaper to get a large number of low-cost, unskilled workers to do the job by hand?

Why dig a hole with expensive earth-moving equipment if it's cheaper to get 10,000 men to the job with spoons?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

New New Labour

Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell are long gone, Tony Blair goes today, and yet the New Labour machine is still working.

Gordon Brown is made to look more human and more 'new' by the day. An obscure Tory MP has defected to Labour and the Tories are made to look divided and lacklustre.

It's just like the old days, very New Labour - or should that be New New Labour

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Origins of the British - Stephen Oppenheimer

In his book, The Origins of the British, Stephen Oppenheimer examines British and Irish history from a genetic perspective (mtDNA and Y-chromosome analysis).

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited unchanged (except for chance mutations) from your mother, whilst the Y-chromosome is inherited unchanged from your father (except for chance mutations which are more likely as this chunk of DNA is bigger than mtDNA). Most of the chance mutations in these DNA chunks have no effect and so just build up over generations, allowing geneticists to construct family trees based on the differences. The rate of mutation is fairly low, for mtDNA there's just one mutation in 1000 generations on average.

Britain and Ireland in the last Ice Age (15,000 years ago) were covered in ice caps and uninhabited polar desert; European populations survived in the evocatively named Ice Age Refuges: in Ukraine and Eastern Europe; in Italy; and in south-west Europe either side of the Pyrenees. The climate and lifestyles would presumably have been similar to that of Siberian tribes or North American Inuit.

Once the ice receded, people from the Ice Age refuges started spreading out and eventually colonised what would become Britain and Ireland. Oppenheimer's key point is that the vast majority of British and Irish (68-88% of people, depending where you live) are descended from these first inhabitants: hunter-gatherers who arrived during the stone age before farming.

The vast majority of these came originally from the south-west European Ice Age refuge around what is now the Basque country. The other, albeit smaller, source of inhabitants is people who originated in the south-east European Ice Age refuge, who would have come into the Eastern side of Britain from the opposite sides of the North Sea. Oppenheimer says that some of these people arrived before the advent of farming, some after.

What this effectively does is demolish all the old theories that had successive waves of invasion and migration spreading over these islands and replacing previous populations. So Neolithic farmers didn't arrive and out-breed the locals, instead the locals must have taken up farming; Iron Age Celts didn't arrive and wipe out their Bronze Age predecessors; and Anglo-Saxons did not perpetrate genocide against indigenous Celts in Dark Age England.

Another theory he demolishes is that when Britain was conquered by the Romans the population was entirely Celtic-speaking. This has been assumed mainly because the post-Roman Angles and Saxons have been described as invaders in the few texts that survive from the end of the Roman Empire.

After reviewing the genetic, historical, archaeological and linguistic issues, Oppenheimer concludes that Celtic populations were living in the same areas that they occupied in later historical times: Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Western Scotland; and that the main Eastern populations (in England and Scotland) were culturally Germanic/Scandinavian (reflecting the cultural links across the North Sea) - this would help to explain why English has hardly any Celtic words in it and, whilst obviously related to Dutch and German, seems to have split off from them much earlier than Anglo-Saxon times.

It had always struck me as odd, the idea that the Angles supposedly came from a little bit of Denmark called Angeln but had sufficient numbers to conquer the whole of what became the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria - half of Engand. If Angeln had been a powerful city-state commanding huge tracts of Northern Europe then perhaps it would make sense.

Friday, May 11, 2007

colour changing card trick

This card trick by Dr Richard Wiseman on YouTube is excellent - you will be fooled.

(Also see and James Randi)

Friday, May 04, 2007

UK Local/Regional Election Results

Labour lose seats to the various nationalist parties everywhere: SNP in Scotland; Plaid Cymru in Wales and the Conservatives in England.

Alternatively, compared to the share of the vote in last year's local election results: Labour are up (by 1% to 27%); the Tories stay the same (at 40%); and the Lib Dems are down (1% to 26%).

What does it all mean?

Well, it's a mid-term election, so it potentially means nothing. Governing parties often do badly in mid-term local elections but go on to win subsequent general elections - but not always, so you just don't know.

Gordon Brown could take the view that it's a mid-term, low turn-out poll and those disgruntled Labour supporters who voted SNP or Plaid Cymru are likely to revert to Labour come the General Election, particularly as they didn't vote Tory. He can also be quietly confident that the Tory challenge has been fairly muted as they barely reached the 40% mark in their share of the vote. Labour did worse in the 2004 local elections but still won in 2005 ...and Brown can still jettison many unpopular 'Blair' policies before then and get in a tax cut.

David Cameron can take the view that the Tories did really well, especially considering that they haven't even outlined any policies yet. He can point to the fact that Tony Blair hasn't quite resigned yet and this has hindered his ability to really target Gordon Brown, and he can paint a rosy picture where a revitalised Tory party full of new policy initiatives will make Brown look old and lack-lustre - especially if more of Labour's chickens come home to roost (like cash for honours).

The rosy scenario for the SNP is that they are about to form a Scottish administration as a stepping stone on the path to Scottish independence - the gloomy view would be that they've peaked, many of the people who voted for them don't want independence, so they have to risk losing their support if they push for independence; also, watch out for the anti-independence press looking for skeletons in the SNP's cupboards or producing doom-laden analyses of the prospects for an independent Scotland.

I suspect that it's in the interests of Labour, Lib Dems and Tories a like, if the SNP try to govern as a minority administration in Scotland, they can watch the SNP vote erode as they struggle to actually run Scotland. Of course, the fact that they are even in the position to consider being a minority administration is fairly momentous - although Alex Salmond may regret banging on about all those spoilt ballot papers, he's got the most to lose!

As for the Lib Dems, if they're struggling to capitalise on Labour's mid-term woes, now then how badly will they do in the General Election? This could be quite significant if their voters start to fragment in different directions.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Suck Quilley's

Quilley's Throat Lozenges:
If your throat is sore - suck Quilley's

Well, it made me laugh. I'm fairly sure that I heard Paddy Ashdown tell this joke in a fairly serious radio discussion (Start the Week) about Iraq and other wars, but I may have confused it with a comedy programme I heard later in the day (The Unbelievable Truth).

When I googled it, I found a reference to a slightly different version of it (from 2001) on this: A digest of extracts gathered over the past week from various sources, notably BBC Radio 4.

Gordon Brown compared to John Major

You never hear any commentator compare Brown to John Major, despite the similarities of their positions (taking over mid-term after 10 years of an enormously successful but now unpopular prime minister) ...and, of course, Major really was an unknown quantity (3 months as Foreign secretary and Chancellor for just one budget).

In April/May 1990, Labour were scoring over 50% compared to the Tories in the low 30s in opinion polls (ICM) and yet Major went on to win in 1992. Now it's Labour in the low 30s but the Tories struggle to score over 40%. (see

In 1990, inflation was over 9% and interest rates were as high as 15%! Unemployment was on the way up as the 90s recession bit. I could imagine Brown saying: you've never had it so good! (see

Provided Brown can get out of Iraq (and the US Democrats might sort that out for him) and provided he hasn't sold anyone a lordship then his position is good.

The interesting thing will be how Cameron responds to Brown, currently the Tories try to portray Brown as a centralising control-freak whose urge to meddle and tax is screwing up the economy - but, despite the recent hoohah about inflation, no-one is currently predicting a recession, so a year down the line, if inflation is back on target and the economy continues to grow, this won't wash.

If Cameron is to avoid being cast as a soft, hand-wringing version of Blair then he has to come up with some eye-catching policies. Which way will he go? Green? Brown will point to how this will hit the consumer in the pocket. Tax cuts? Brown will get a tax cut in before the next election and then ask what the Tories are going to cut back on to pay for more tax cuts. Privatisation? What could they privatise apart from very controversial things like the NHS or Post Office? Reform of the House of Lords? Who cares?

I suspect that Cameron could most easily wrong foot Brown by advocating policies for decentralisation, along the lines of taking operational control of the NHS out of the hands of politicians and devolving power from Whitehall to the English regions (as has been done for Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland) - unless, of course, Brown gets there first as he did when he gave the Bank of England operational independence.

Friday, April 20, 2007

What to say to God

Having read Gödel, Escher, Bach as a teenager, and so being aware that Godel's incompleteness theorem proved that some things in mathematics are unprovable, I always imagined that, if I was very wrong and there is a god, I would stand before his throne on the Day of Judgement and say "So what is the answer to Fermat's Last Theorem then?", unfortunately it isn't unprovable and was proved back in the 1990s.

Being slightly less cocky now, I considered changing it to: "Who elected you?", unfortunately I'm sure that would bring the rather self-satisfied reply of: "No-one".

So perhaps the best thing to say would be: "You know what I'm going to say, so I shan't say it" - which I'm sure will leave me immensely pleased with myself as I while away eternity in Hell.

Don't die of ignorance

See James Randi's newsletter for a story that can be summarised as:
pneumonia, herbal remedy, death.

Not dissimilar to the story on the BBC which can be summarised as:
exotic travel , homeopathic anti-malaria remedies (indistinguishable from water), catch malaria.

What are your chances of being hit by a bus?

To highlight how dependent they might be on a key employee, businesses are often asked what they would do if that employee were run over and killed by a bus (e.g. the Bus Test) - and the answer would point out various problems for disaster recovery and business continuity planning issues.

So what are the odds of someone being killed by a bus? For the UK, we can look at the official statistics (Department for Transport).

For 2004, there were 121 accidents involving buses and causing a death. That doesn't quite mean that 121 people were killed by being hit by a bus as it would include any accident involving a bus where any number of people died (there's a table showing that 3 bus drivers and 17 bus passengers were killed).

This is expressed as a rate per 100 million vehicle kilometres of 2.3. So, on average, any one bus is involved in a fatal accident every 27 million miles of travel.

So, if we assume that there were at most 121 cases of someone being killed by being hit by a bus and if we assume that everyone in the UK (60 million people) has an equal chance of this happening then the odds are something like 2 in a million (per year).

Of course, anyone wandering around in China with their iPod on may have a higher chance.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The genes you inherit from your ancestors

You get half your genes from your mother and half from your father. How far back do you need to go until you have ancestors who did not contribute any genes to you?

Apparently (Science Magazine or Human Genome Project), humans have about 25,000 genes.

To get a number of ancestors higher than that, you need to take your family tree back 15 generations; whereupon you'll find 32,768 people as the 'terminal nodes'. How far back in time would that be?

Some branches of your family tree will be shorter than others e.g. there may be one route through the tree where the average generation is 20 years which would take you back 15x20 years = 300 years ago; other branches might have average generations of 25 years, making it 15x25 years = 375 years (presenting the possibility that, at that level in your family tree, some of them may be the grandparents of others at the same level and will therefore re-appear in your family tree at the 18 generation level).

So, there are people 300 or so years ago from whom you are descended but from whom you have inherited no genetic material. Theoretically, because of people marrying cousins (even very distant ones), many of the people in your family tree appear more than once and so are likely, even as far back as 15 generations, to have contributed more than the single gene that you'd expect.

What it all means, in effect, is that, once you've gone back enough generations, you're really not descended from individual people at all but from the gene pool corresponding to the cross-section of humanity that forms the nodes in the complicated graph that is your family tree.

Apparently (BBC News), we share 95% or more of our genes with chimps, which implies that only 1250 or less of your genes would matter in human terms, that would mean going back just 11 generations (2048 ancestors) - a couple of centuries.

So, if anyone ever tells you that they're descended from Nelson or Thomas Jefferson, just tell them:
"Perhaps you are, but not very much..."


One of the silliest ideas around in UK politics at the moment is that England should have a devolved parliament of its own just like Scotland has. You can see how silly this is by looking at the chart in this article in the Economist, which shows just how big the English population is compared to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Devolving government to the English regions along the same lines as we have for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland probably makes sense; but having a single English Parliament (covering well over 80% of the UK population] would make a nonsense of having a UK parliament.

Another idea floating around at the moment is that if the Scottish National Party win control of the Scottish Parliament then Scottish independence will inevitably follow. Perhaps, but I very much doubt that the Scots would vote yes to this in a referendum. Once it is realised how much money would be wasted in the process of divorcing from England (who gets which oil fields in the North Sea? how do you divide up the armed forces? who gets the nuclear weapons? how do you divide up the assets of the Bank of England and the national debt?) and once it becomes clear that Scotland would become a very minor European nation, people aren't going to be so keen on it.

From England's point of view, if Scotland left the UK it wouldn't make all that much difference. Indeed, even if the whole union of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England broke up, England would become the 4th most-populous country in the EU as opposed to the UK being the 3rd. Scotland would be 20th (EU member states).

What will happen? I doubt whether Scotland will get as far as choosing independence, but I strongly suspect that some form of regional government will happen in England. At that point people will have to get used to the idea that different parts of the country can choose to do things differently and that's how democracy works.

Personally, I think that devolved regional government like the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Major are good things. Politicians are rarely humble enough to admit that they don't have all the answers and the UK's centralised system allows them to impose their prejudices and mad-cap ideas over the whole country with little analysis or experimentation. Regional governments would allow different places to try out different policies, so we could then actually see what works.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Gordon Brown's big chance

On the 1st May, Tony Blair will have been UK Prime Minister for 10 years, unlike Margaret Thatcher (who, after 10 years as PM, famously made a speech about going on and on) Blair has already said he will go - presumably sometime soon after the UK local elections in May.

Gordon Brown will almost certainly become Labour leader after Blair goes. Most political analysts at the moment are concentrating on Brown's weaknesses; especially as opinion polls predict that Brown will lose to the Tory leader, David Cameron, in a General Election; but I suspect that they are underestimating the strength of his position.

Only twice in the last 40 years has a serving Prime Minister resigned mid-term. One was Harold Wilson in 1976 and the other was Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Wilson was replaced by James Callaghan who went on to lose the 1979 Election (to Thatcher); Thatcher was replaced by John Major who went on to win the 1992 Election.

I'm sure that Gordon Brown is well aware that the policy which made Thatcher so unpopular (the Poll Tax) was immediately ditched along with Thatcher, and was one of the reasons that Major got an immediate boost in the polls. The strength of Brown's position is that he will be able to ditch some of the more unpopular Blair policies.

The main issue that is sapping support for Labour is Iraq. If Brown pulls out of Iraq, then that issue is effectively neutralised and remains associated with Blair, in the same way that the Poll Tax was associated with Thatcher. I think that he'll also move away from the spin-doctoring that has been such a hallmark of the Blair government.

I wouldn't be too surprised if he drops expensive, unpopular policies such as ID Cards and concentrates on keeping the economy ticking over well enough for him to get some tax cuts in before the next election. Gordon Brown is canny enough to know that mid-term opinion polls mean nothing (Kinnock was way ahead of Thatcher when she fell, but still lost to Major) and that the Clinton slogan still holds true: The economy, stupid.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Striped Tops

I was surprised to see a group of cartoon robbers at the side of the road last night, but they turned out to be just a group of scally kids dressed in the new fashion of grey striped tops.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Faces in the sand

faces in the sand, yesterday

Are these two news items related?
China's People's Daily Online: Sculptures to improve interest in farmers
BBC Day in Pictures: Patriotic performance art event

Monday, March 12, 2007

Cold Reading

Cold reading is what 'psychics' do to make it seem that they have 'psychic' knowledge e.g. mind-reading, remote-viewing, talking to the dead, etc.

The example of cold reading given in James Randi's latest
newsletter (and more fully here) - about an attempt by a famous US 'psychic' to locate a missing person - is very cold indeed (on so many levels). Note that the murderer of the missing person was in the studio while the 'psychic' was using her 'powers'.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

The other day, I started rereading a book by Paul Kennedy called The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers - published 20 years ago.

He argued that the relative fortunes of powerful states are determined by their available resources and economic growth. This was illustrated by examples such as: the decline of Spain and France relative to Britain during the Industrial Revolution; the decline of Britain relative to America and Germany as those larger countries industrialised; and comparisons of the military potential of each side in various big wars (especially the Axis powers versus US, UK and USSR in WWII).

He spends a huge number of pages talking about nuclear weapons, missiles, submarines and tanks - in a way that we just don't anymore - whilst it was getting to the end of the Cold War, no one really knew (or expected) it at the time.

Looking at it now, the most interesting thing is his review of the 5 actual and potential 'great' powers of the mid-1980s: US, USSR, Japan, EEC and China; and their prospects as they approached the 21st Century. India doesn't get a look in.

China: He correctly expected China to continue its hectic growth but saw its main problem being that the agricultural sector was doing very well and people in urban areas were still very poor - the opposite of what we see today.

Japan: He didn't foresee the popping of Japan's growth bubble; making much of its technological edge - in those days we all assumed that the future for factories was in robots and computers rather than millions of Chinese workers.

EEC: His review of Europe was fairly gloomy, he didn't foresee the consolidation of the single European market nor its expansion as countries queued up to join the EU (of course, this was all before the Berlin Wall came down). Funnily enough he saw Britain as continuing its relative decline (smaller than Italy and France economically) and France as out-growing West Germany. Of course, nowadays we see the continental economies as being stuck in the doldrums...

USSR: His analysis of just how bad the Soviet economy had become is probably spot on; but, despite quoting Gorbachev's calls for reform, he held out little hope that the country would embrace Chinese-style economic reforms let alone Western-style freedoms. Within a few years, of course, Eastern Europe was free and the USSR ceased to exist (no one predicted that).

USA: Given all the examples in the rest of his book, it's surprising that he didn't examine the prospect that a declining USSR would leave the US as by far the most dominant military power in the world. Indeed, in discussing China, Japan and Europe he stresses how small their military capabilities are with respect to America. It's funny now to think that people seriously considered that Japan's economy might out-strip America's.

His projected growth rates may have been wrong (under-estimating US and UK growth, over-estimating Japan and France) but his fundamental point appears very relevant, e.g. Japan's economic growth stopped and America's accelerated, so Japan dropped away as a threat.

Given how hard it is to predict the future, let's not bother; but we can ask a few pertinent questions: will China continue to grow relentlessly or will this fundamentally over-populated and under-resourced country hit the buffers? will climate change severely dent the economic prospects of India and China with their low lying plains? will American growth collapse as oil runs out?

Friday, January 19, 2007

America's bizarre creation myths

Sadly, American mythology about 1776 tends to portray Britain as a cross between a Renaissance autocracy and Nazi Germany rather than as the country that bestowed on America the legacy of personal freedom, the rule of law and capitalism.

Reading the Economist the other day, I was astonished by such mythology passing for history in Lexington’s article about Seymour Martin Lipset and American exceptionalism.

Bizarrely, it says that the 1776 revolution got rid of feudalism. This seems an odd comment to make, given that the Britain of 1776 against whom the American colonists revolted was a Parliamentary democracy (albeit of very limited franchise), where Adam Smith was publishing ‘The Wealth of Nations’, and where most historians would agree that it is precisely the absence of feudalism that was one of the many factors allowing for the start of the Industrial Revolution at this time.

I found the inability to consider the bleeding obvious in this article astounding. Surely one need look no further than its huge size and its historical capacity to absorb people (and give them the opportunity to own land) to see why America is exceptional. No other country has had such relatively benign temperate lands to expand into.

It chooses to explain Canada's adoption of the Metric System by reference to a monarchist counter-revolution (that'll be people who chose to remain loyal to Britain in 1776) rather than the fact that Canada has a small population (32 million) and can agree this can of change fairly easily and amicably.

Having said all that, people in the UK are often just as ignorant of the past, choosing to celebrate dubious things like the Battle of Agincourt and the fact that Britain ruled a lot of other people's countries for them (without asking permission). Not many Brits would highlight the abolition of slavery as a key acheivement but the way that it happened was remarkable.

Slavery was pursued through the courts in Britain with the result that (in 1772) it was deemed unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable in Britain (but alas not her colonies); then a huge campaign against slavery was mounted until firstly the trade was banned (1807) by Parliament throughout the Empire and then slavery itself was banned (1833) - although it was the owners who got compensation rather than their victims. Unfortunately, slaves in the southern states of America were no longer living in the British Empire, so they had to wait till 1865 for the outcome of the American Civil War.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Scottish Prime Ministers

I heard a reporter on the BBC tying himself up in knots whilst talking about the prospect of Gordon Brown becoming UK Prime Minister.

He said that Brown would be the first Scottish Prime Minister since Sir Alec Douglas-Home, but then had to add the rider 'representing a Scottish constituency' - presumably because he realised that Gordon Brown would only be the first Scottish Prime Minister since Edinburgh-born Tony Blair.

Friday, January 12, 2007


I saw a reference in the Guardian about It seems easier to use than Google maps, much less jumpy.