Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Greek Colonels - my part in their downfall

In June 1970 I received a 9-month prison sentence, and served 6, for my part in a demonstration in Cambridge. This was the Garden House Hotel demo, which took place on Friday 13th February that year. It has been much on my mind since last March, when a journalist contacted me for a feature he was writing to mark the 40th anniversary. More of this below. This post gives the background. I shall have further comments soon on my involvement, and the role of chance in human affairs.

The picture is from the Cambridge Evening News. I don’t have the original caption. I imagine we are all on our way to the trial at Hertford Assizes in June; though it’s possible it was the magistrates court committal hearing in March or thereabouts. The two cheerful fellows had good reason to be cheerful. They weren’t on trial. Striding out to the left of the picture is Gottfried Ensslin. The cheerful chap with the specs is Stephen Ginsborg, whose brother Paul I shared a house with in York a few years later. Eyeing me disapprovingly, as well he might, is Rod Caird, while I make a spectacle of myself with my tie.

You can read about Gottfried and Rod, and about me for that matter, in the latest issue of Cambridge University’s CAM magazine. Scroll down to page 22 or search for Here six of the protestors recall their part (without quotes).

The magazine ran this feature to mark the affair’s 40th anniversary. I gave a telephone interview to William Ham Bevan, a journalist who had been commissioned to write the piece. It appeared in the October edition of CAM, and was reprinted on 23rd November by the London Independent, whose editor detected a resonance with this year’s student protests over fees.

The Garden House demonstration was to protest against a dinner which was the culmination of ‘Greek Week’, an initiative held in the city to raise Greece’s profile as a holiday destination. We were informed that the Greek embassy had sent down a chef for the occasion, and I imagine this was indeed the case. What made it distasteful was that Greece was in the hands of a fascist military Junta which had seized power by a coup in 1967. The regime, often referred to as the Greek Colonels, was rabidly anti-communist and justified its actions by claiming to save Greece for democracy. Torture was widely used. The Scandinavian countries as well as the Netherlands took a very hostile stance and filed a complaint before the Human Rights Commission of the Council of Europe in September 1967. (The Junta opted to leave the Council of Europe voluntarily in December 1969 before a verdict was handed down.) The United Kingdom voiced criticism about Greece's human rights record but supported Greece’s continued membership in the Council of Europe and NATO because of the country's strategic value. The USA took the same stance as the UK. There is a murky story of close association between Greek military intelligence and the CIA, which I don’t have the details of. But I can tell you that at the time we were convinced that the CIA had a hand in the coup (like Chile later). The regime collapsed in 1974.

I notice that in the preceding paragraph I have used the word “we” twice, which might give the false impression that I was fully integrated into the protest and au fait with the issues at stake. This is far from the truth, as you will see if you study my quotes in the CAM article. I shall have more to say on this soon, when I have got my thoughts in order. My role in the protest was extremely minor, and my presence there almost accidental; but its effect on the rest of my life was total. Everything that happened from then on stems from the night of Friday 13th February 1970. 

Read more here


Saturday, December 18, 2010

How many times do you have to cut a piece of A4 before it's the width of an atom?

Q. How many times would you have to cut the long side of a piece of A4 paper in half before it's the width of an atom?


This question appears on overhead advertising boards on the DART (Dublin local commuter train). There’s a mobile number so you can text the Institute of Physics in Ireland to check if your answer is right.

Answer: 31

Click for other teasers, such as what happens if you try to light a candle in an orbiting space station.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mr Browning, what rhymes with Timbuktu?

It is related that the 19th century poet Robert Browning boasted he could make a poem to rhyme with any word. A man at his London club challenged him: What about Timbuktu?

    Once a Cassowary
        in Timbuktu
    Ate a missionary
        and his hymn book too.

Missionary needs to be said as “mission airy”. A Cassowary, since you ask, is an ostrich-like bird native to New Guinea; hence unlikely to be found in Timbuktu.  The word rhyme has an interesting history.  Until the 17th century it was written rime, derived from Old French.  My English teacher, Mr Dumbreck, told us that it was changed to rhyme due to false etymology, associating it with rhythm (of Greek origin).  However the OED says that ultimately the English word rime and the Greek word rhythm do have the same source, so perhaps Mr Dumbreck was a little too severe.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Climate change scientists warn 4C global temperature rise will create hellish world

Turkana nomadic pastoralists herd goats and sheep to an
almost dry dam in northwestern Kenya, December 2009.
Photograph: Stephen Morrison/EPA (The Guardian)
A hellish vision of a world warmed by 4C within a lifetime has been set out by an international team of scientists. The agonisingly slow progress of the global climate change talks that restart in Mexico today makes the so-called safe limit of 2C impossible to keep. A 4C rise in the planet's temperature would see severe droughts across the world and millions of migrants seeking refuge as their food supplies collapse.

Story in Guardian.  Comments also worth reading.

Royal Society publication :  'Four degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications'

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Stir up we beseech thee, the wills of thy faithful people

Last Sunday, 21st November, was Stir-up Sunday, an informal term in the Anglican church for the last Sunday before Advent. The term comes from the opening words of the collect for the day. This is to be found in the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549 and after many revisions re-issued in 1662.

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Through an association of ideas (I'm quoting from Wikipedia here) the day subsequently became connected, especially in England, with the preparation of Christmas puddings.

Archbishop Cranmer
National Portrait Gallery, London
English literature is a mountain range of many peaks. The Book of Common Prayer sits atop one of them. Most of the collects (maybe all?) were closely based on translations from the Latin of the Roman Missal. So far as I know the translating was all done by Archishop Thomas Cranmer. If so then Cranmer must be numbered with Shakespeare, Chaucer and William Tyndale (more of him another time) amongst the fathers of the English language.

(Actually I see from an exhibition at the British Library, Feb 2011 that he only headed up a committee.)

Cranmer was tried for treason and heresy after the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor came to the throne. Imprisoned for over two years and under pressure from the Church authorities, he made several recantations and apparently reconciled himself with the Roman Catholic faith. However, on the day of his execution, 21 March 1556, he dramatically withdrew his recantations, thrusting his right hand (the hand that has signed the recantations) first into the fire, to die a heretic (to Catholics) and to Protestants, a martyr.

Here's a another collect, or it is just prayer, I don't know the difference:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of Thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was at prep school between the ages of 7 and 13, we used to go chapel every morning and every evening for a 15-minute service, and on Sundays for a one-hour service in the morning and about half an hour in the evening. I suppose these were matins and evensong, though I don't recall those terms actually being used. At Sunday evensong we used to sing the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Every day there would be a collect from the Book of Common Prayer, and the consequence is that there are numerous collects which are so familiar to me that they summon up my childhood like a sharp jolt. Here is another collect. I know now, but didn't then, that it's the Collect for Ash Wednesday and is repeated every day throughout Lent. Since Lent lasts 40 days, this repetition could account for it being ingrained so deeply in my memory.

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent, create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ. Amen

A few weeks ago I announced a competition for the three most sublime passages in the English language, and shortlisted a tale told by an idiot from Macbeth. I now add the following Collect for Grace. This morning I almost choked with tears when I read it. But not now, how strange. Does it objectively deserve such a high accolade? Or is it all mixed up with some childhood memories that I'm not fully aware of?

O Lord our heavenly Father,
almighty and everlasting God,
who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day;
defend us in the same with thy mighty power;
and grant that this day we fall into no sin,
neither run into any kind of danger,
but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance,
to do always that is righteous in thy sight;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Solar furnace melts rock - video

In this clip from BBC One’s “Bang Goes the Theory,” a high-performance solar furnace focuses normal sunshine into a heat-ray that reaches 3,500 deg C, hot enough to melt rocks. Watch it here : Video

Did stories make us human?

It’s been suggested that telling stories is what made us human. We devote a huge proportion of our lives to enjoying fictions.  Novels, film, television and before that travelling story-tellers.  Perhaps this has been so since the dawn of our species. Maybe what made our remote ancestors special was the ability to explore scenarios verbally, so that trial and error took place, so far as possible, around the campfire, not out on the perilous savannah.

I heard this on a podcast, which I hope I have saved somewhere, though for the life of me I can't lay my hands on it. I think it was the CBC (Canadian) programme Ideas, but I may be wrong. I badly need to listen to it again. The foregoing paragraph will be the opening to the preface of my putative book of childrens stories. I've just found out that there is a website called where you can publish your own book. Hugely excited about this. Even if I can't sell my book, I'll be able to print it for Martha and Charlie and give a few copies away as presents. But I'll need to look lively, or Martha and Charlie will be too old!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

ICTU demo 27th November

Here's a demonstration I'll be sad to miss, I'll be at the races in Newcastle, England.  See Irish Congress of Trade Unions website.

One-way trip to Mars – can we, perhaps – should we, perhaps not

A rock-strewn plain on Mars

Should we allow a one-way crewed mission to Mars? Two scientists, invoking the spirit of Star Trek, contend in a scholarly article entitled To Boldly Go, that human travel to Mars could happen much more quickly and cheaply if the missions are made one-way.  The scientists are Paul Davies of Arizona State University (the main man in my book) and Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University (previously unknown to me).  Their article has appeared in the Journal of Cosmology (October-November edition).

"The astronauts would go to Mars with the intention of staying for the rest of their lives, as trailblazers of a permanent human Mars colony,"  the article says.  They argue that it would be little different from early settlers to North America, who left Europe with little expectation of return.  "The main point is to get Mars exploration moving," Schulze-Makuch told the Irish Examiner (which is where I first saw the story). 

In addition to offering humanity a "lifeboat" in the event of a mega-catastrophe, a Mars colony is attractive for scientific reasons, the article says. (I don’t like this lifeboat business, see my earlier post against preserving the human species.)

They cite these scientific benefits : That a base on Mars could be a unique opportunity to study an alien life form and a second evolutionary record.  An intensive study of ancient and modern Mars will cast important light on the origin of life on Earth. Mars conceals a wealth of geological and astronomical data that is almost impossible to access from Earth using robotic probes. The base would open the way to comparative planetology on a scale unimagined by any former generation. It would offer a springboard for human/robotic exploration of the outer solar system and the asteroid belt.

Paul Davies - main man
Finally, establishing a permanent multicultural and multinational human presence on another world would have major beneficial political and social implications for Earth, and serve as a strong unifying and uplifting theme for all humanity.  (I like the motivation, even if it’s a bit unrealistic.)

The authors note that Mars is a six-month flight away, possesses surface gravity, an atmosphere (huh? not much of one), abundant water, carbon dioxide and essential minerals. They propose the missions start by sending two 2-person teams, in separate ships. More colonists and regular supply ships would follow.  The technology already exists, or is within easy reach, they write.

The one-way mission idea has been mooted before but I'm pretty sure this is the first time it has been seriously proposed by academics.  It doesn’t find favour in official circles, with NASA or ESA. At least not yet. The Irish Examiner contacted retired Apollo 14 lunar astronaut Ed Mitchell, who was critical of the one-way idea.  "This is premature," Mitchell wrote in an e-mail. "We aren’t ready for this yet."

Davies and Schulze-Makuch deny they’re proposing a "suicide mission".  They recognise the idea is a tough sell for NASA, with its intense focus on safety.  They think the private sector might be a better place to try their plan.  "What we would need is an eccentric billionaire," Schulze-Makuch told the Examiner. "There are people who have the money to put this into reality."

Defining suicide

I've heard it said, and I'm sure it's true, that there would be plenty of volunteers for a one-way mission.  Even so, is it right? 

Would those who sent these colonists be colluding in their suicide? What's the definition of suicide?  If the probability of dying is 1 that’s suicide for sure, but say the probability is 0.9, what then?   And how soon does the death have to occur?  Say that (provided they survived the landing) there's a high probability the colonists will survive 6 months but only a small probability they will survive a year.  Would that be suicide?  And if the colonists know the risks but willingly accept them in a spirit of adventure?

Another scientific ethical dilemma for the lecture I'm working on, “Just because we can does that mean we should”. I hope to give it to Cork Astronomy Club one day. 

Update on this story August 2012.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

IMF deal : Minimum wage to be cut

But things could be worse. Thankfully they haven't touched the maximum wage.

I dream things that never were and say - Why not?

Serpent : “You see things; and you say Why? But I dream things that never were; and I say Why not?”
From Shaw’s play, Back to Methuselah, Act I. The serpent addresses these words to Eve.  John F Kennedy adapted the quote and made it famous in this form:-

Some men see things as they are and say, why?  I dream things that never were and say, why not?

He used it for the first time when he addressed the Dáil on June 28, 1963. His brother Robert used the quote continually during his 1968 campaign for president.  A few weeks ago a reader wrote to the Irish Examiner to say he was with senator Robert Kennedy when he used the quote five days prior to his assassination in Central Valley, California, in May of that year.  Ted Kennedy used it at his brother Robert’s funeral, 8 June 1968. 

I must read Back to Methuselah!  I may get inspiration for my Adam and Eve story.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Autumn photos

11th Nov, hazel hedge still in leaf
Long shadows, 21st October
And on 11th November

The Beech tree on 21st October

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The IMF is not the workers friend

Talks to 'intensify' over Irish debt crisis is the latest headline on the RTÉ website, timestamped a few minutes ago.

In recent weeks, I've heard callers to talk radio shows including RTÉ’s popular Liveline say “welcome to the IMF,  they can't be worse than the lot we have.”  Anyone who thinks the IMF or the European Central Bank are the workers’ friend is sadly mistaken. They are the bankers friend. They are bankers.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Mother and Child crisis of 1951

Archbishop John Charles McQuaid
of Dublin denounced Noel Browne’s
Mother and Child Scheme

This essay on the Mother and Child Scheme is a follow-up to my piece on secularism.

In the late 19th century, unionists bent on frustrating the home rule project coined the slogan Home Rule is Rome Rule. The Mother and Child Scheme affair of 1951, which I am going to describe, is commonly cited as the clearest evidence that Ireland up to the 1950’s did indeed have Rome rule.

At the 1948 general election de Valera was ousted and replaced by a multi-party coalition under Taoiseach John A Costello. This was the government that formally proclaimed the Republic in 1949. One of the new government’s first acts was to send a telegram to the Pope desiring "to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and our devotion to your August Person, as well as our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ and to strive for the attainment of social order in Ireland based on Christian principles."

Maurice Moynihan, the cabinet secretary, strongly advised against the telegram on the grounds that "no civil power should declare that it reposed at the feet of the Pope," but he was overruled and promptly banned from future cabinet meetings.

In 1951 Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin issued a diktat to the government over the Mother and Child Scheme proposed by Dr Noel Browne, the minister for health, who was also a doctor. The cabinet meekly submitted. Noel Browne protested and resigned.

Beveridge Report

For background we need to go back to the Beveridge Report published by the UK government in 1942. This was the report that recommended social insurance and a universal health service, which was subsequently enacted by the post-war Labour government under Atlee. According to one Irish historian, the Beveridge Report was “perhaps the most significant influence on Irish public opinion after the war."

Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme would have provided free health care to all mothers, and children up to the age of sixteen. A limited national health service in effect. Browne’s department had been doing a magnificent job in building hospitals and tackling what had been the highest rate of tuberculosis in western Europe. By 1951, after just 3 years, the TB rate had been halved and he turned his attention to the country’s infant mortality rate, also one of the highest in Europe.

The 1948 Cabinet. Noel Browne seated at left.
John A Costello seated centre. (Irish Times)
Opposition from Catholic church

His Mother and Child scheme was to give effect to a law not yet implemented, passed under the previous Fianna Fáil government. It ran into opposition from the Catholic church because the bishops thought it amounted to socialised medicine, as there was no means test for free treatment, and moreover that the scheme provided for counselling of pregnant women without stipulating that only a Catholic doctor could advise a pregnant Catholic woman.

The bishops objected to the state taking upon itself "education in respect of motherhood". Browne sought to reassure them that this related to matters such as diet, and not issues like contraception or abortion, which were illegal anyway. This didn’t stop the church issuing black propaganda claiming that contraception and abortion were included in the scheme along with euthanasia for the aged and sterilisation for the unfit.

The Dominican order issued a question and answer sheet which portrayed Browne’s heath scheme as communist and immoral. I can hardly believe what I'm writing here but it’s on page 208 of Noel Browne’s autobiography. He says two of the questions and answers were:-

Q: Is it a mortal sin to introduce a mother and child health service?
A: It is a sin to introduce a mother and child no-means-test service.

Q: Is it true that the Communist Party believes in free health services?
A: It is true that the Communist Party has a free health service.

So the Tea Party isn't new. Actually I'm jumping ahead a few months because that was in the 1951 general election when Browne, who had had to resign as health minister, stood as an independent and doubled his first-preference votes.

Returning to the sequence of events, the doctors too opposed the scheme (just as in Britain they opposed the NHS) their motivation being that it would curtail their incomes, by increasing their ‘dispensary’ patients and reducing their private ones.

This reactionary attack by the church and medical establishment frightened Browne’s conservative fellow ministers who quickly disavowed him and his scheme.

All four cheeks

In a notorious incident that has become part of the folklore of this story, Taoiseach John A Costello allowed himself to be summoned by Archbishop McQuaid to his Drumcondra palace to be informed of the difficulties between the bishops and minister for health. Costello actually asked the archbishop for permission to speak to Browne. "I asked his Grace to permit me to try to adjust the matter with my colleague," Costello told the Dáil. "His Grace readily gave me that assignment and that authority."

The prime minister asking permission from a cleric to speak to one of his own ministers! Who was running the country? One wit said, and many wits have since repeated, that Costello not only kissed the archbishop’s ring but also kissed him on all four cheeks.

Costello notified Browne in writing that he was withholding approval of the scheme "due to the objections set forth in the letter to me from the secretary to the Hierarchy." He ordered that Browne should not describe the scheme as government policy "unless and until you have satisfied the Hierarchy."

Another frequently cited incident from the affair is this.  Browne was “peremptorily ordered” to a meeting with Archbishop McQuaid at his palace by a telephone call from his secretary. Browne thought the meeting ought to be held in the health ministry, as for any other citizen. “Yet my Cabinet colleagues informed me that in fact it was the practice, under Irish government protocol, for a minster to be expected to attend, when told to do so, at a bishop’s palace”.

Browne resigns

Yielding to pressure from the bishops, the Cabinet dropped the scheme. Browne, accused of deliberately provoking a confrontation with the church, was forced to resign. No political party, not the Labour Party, not his own Clann na Poblachta (radical republican party) supported him.

Browne gave his correspondence with the archbishop to the Irish Times, provoking a political crisis. Shortly afterwards the government fell.

McQuaid is said to have viewed his victory as the most important event in Irish history since Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Hospitals and schools - in fact most aspects of Irish life in the early 1950s - were dominated by Catholic thinking and influence, and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid presided happily over it all.

“I obey my church”

So what was going on? At a cabinet meeting where the archbishop’s letter denouncing the scheme was read out, Browne asked each minister in turn if they assented to the church's ruling that the scheme be dropped. One Labour Party minister muttered "They shouldn't be allowed to do this" but nonetheless nodded assent.  Another minister blustered angrily “How dare you invite me to disobey my church!”

Costello remained unapologetic about his ceding of authority on such a matter to the hierarchy. He told the Dáil "I, as a Catholic, obey my church authorities and will continue to do so."

In a radio interview he said : “I think the power of the church at the present time is as powerful as ever it was because it exists not through any authority that is exercised by priests or bishops, or by hierarchy, or anybody else, but because the church exists in the hearts of the Irish people; and the priests as the representatives of the church have still the strong place in affection and regard that they always had. It’s absurd to be talking about a priest-ridden people, we are a priest-ridden people because we are a Catholic religious people and for no other reason.” 

What of Browne's religion? He considered himself a good Catholic.  He consulted a theologian who advised him (on condition of lifetime anonymity) that his scheme didn’t contradict the church’s moral teaching, only its social teaching. Browne’s empty hope was that he could use this argument to persuade the cabinet that it would not be a sin to adopt the scheme.  

I'll reflect on what all this has to say about secularism later. Annotated copy of this essay available on request.  I should also add that I intend to follow up an article in an historical journal which places an entirely different interpretation on the mother and child affair.

Divergent views 

It's only fair to add that the significance of this affair is still debated by historians. In a television programme (Taoiseach, TV3, 16/1/11) historian Maurice Manning said the Mother and Child Scheme was not such a big issue at the time. Fine Gael (Costello’s party) had opposed it when Fianna Fáil introduced the idea in the previous Dáil. 

Another historian on the programme said it was a cabinet of prima donnas.  Browne was certainly one of those who were the target of this remark. Browne didn’t communicate well with his colleagues in the cabinet. Because of the diverse make-up of the Inter-Party Government, much more responsibility than is customary was delegated to ministers.

It's also argued that the hierarchy didn’t really understand the issues, and Costello used their objections to get rid of Browne whom he was tired of anyway;  and that the Mother and Child Scheme didn’t bring the government down as is sometimes suggested.  It was milk prices sometime later.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"Laying it on with a trowel"

Quiz : who originated the expression to lay something on with a trowel? Was it 
A - Shakespeare
B - Dickens
C - Orwell?
Answer : Shakespeare. 

In Act 1 scene ii of As You Like It, Celia says “Well said: that was laid on with a trowel.”  But did Shakespeare invent it?  I suppose it may already have been an expression in common use.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Property tax? Who cares?

Tonight’s Late Debate on RTÉ Radio 1 featured the much-touted proposal for a property tax.  I sent them an email which wasn’t read out so here it is.

There's a lack of clarity as to what you are debating tonight.

Is it a property tax? Or is it raising an extra €800 per year on average from each household?

If raising
an extra €800 from each household is a given, then it’s only of marginal interest whether it’s raised by a property tax or another way.

Were the overall tax take to remain static, then the debate of property tax vs corporation tax (principally), and income tax, VAT, carbon tax. motor tax etc would be a real one.

I have views about a property tax, which in different circumstances I should be happy to share (to satisfy your curiosity, I'm in favour).  But all that’s quite irrelevant. The only relevant fact is that we are being asked to pay more to line the pockets of bond holders. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

What’s secularism?

Been giving some thought recently to secularism, and the distinction between secularism, secularisation, atheism, humanism.  Many loose ends to be woven together.  This interest, previously dormant, was aroused by an excellent Canadian radio programme in April. (Sadly this is no longer available for downloading on the CBC website.) Next came the Pope’s speech on 17th September at Westminster Hall against aggressive secularism, which at first I was inclined to dismiss out of hand but now I think needs a more considered response.

Other strands to be gathered up include :
  • A blasphemy law introduced in Ireland in (would you believe) 2009. 
  • An episode from Irish history in the 1950’s known as the Mother and Child scheme. 
  • And my belief that Richard Dawkins’ atheist bus was naff. 
The Dawkins atheist bus - naff
A lot of thinking to be done and I'll blog about these things one at a time as I sort them out in my head.  For now, here are a few links.
First, an article in the Irish Examiner 9/1/2010 on the subservience of Irish governments in the first half of the 20th century to the Catholic hierarchy.  “We’ve moved on from the days when Rome ruled our Republic” by Ryle Dwyer.  It’s a representative sample of a recurrent theme in Irish journalism. In this particular article, the finger of blame for a disgracefully subservient demeanour towards the church is pointed at the coalition government that ousted DeValera in 1948, whilst DeValera himself is exonerated from the charge.

For the Pope’s 17th September speech at Westminster Hall, see the Irish Catholic (and the full transcript on the BBC website.)

''Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation … I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance.  There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere.” 

I'm torn between sympathising with this point of view, and dismissing it as the wheedling of a bully who has finally met his match.  More of this in the future.

On the topic of humanism, try downloading this 20-minute interview with Greg Epstein (an atheist and the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University) about his book, Good Without God (NPR Fresh Air December 23, 2009)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Tower of Babel

Have written the story of the Tower of Babel.  And I've now moved it and all other children’s stories to a separate blog :-

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jon Stewart's Washington rally to restore sanity (or gentility?)

Source : Guardian, comment is free

An American correspondent calls this rally which took place yesterday ahead of the congressional elections encouraging, and has sent me this link to story on the New York Times website. 

And here's a link to the Guardian website covering the same event.

No comment

from New Scientist graduate careers
supplement, 23 Oct 2010

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Want to see trucks like this?

A final decision on introducing mega trucks has not yet been made on a European level even though they were rejected last year by the European Transport Commissioner, Antonio Tajani.  This comes from the Environmental Transport Association (ETA). See their website which includes a video.

These ‘mega trucks’ would be massively longer and heavier than what is currently permitted. 60-tons as against 40 tons,  25 metres long as against 18.25 metres.

40 tons,  18.25 metres is the current maximum permitted for a lorry in Britain.  (And in Ireland too I presume.)

In comparison, a Boeing 737-300 carrying its maximum 127 passengers weighs 57.6 tons at take-off, making it lighter than a mega-truck, says the ETA, which is part of a pan-European coalition of organisations against the widespread introduction of these trucks. 

A small group of thoughtful people - the only thing that ever changed the world

Read Osborne’s comprehensive spending review and imagined myself back in my role as a trade union convenor. I just couldn't do that any more.  Then I saw an article in the Guardian saying the majority of the population support the cuts. Made me feel ill. Then I read this article in the London Independent by Johann Hari and felt a lot better: Protest works. Just look at the proof.

Thanks to Phil for this.

It finishes “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” (This is by Margaret Mead.  I once knew who she was but I've forgotten. See 42 other quotes here.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

You wouldn't see this over here! CNN anchor belittles Republican candidate

On 19th October, Tea Party supporter Christine O'Donnell, who is the Republican candidate for Senate in Delaware, made a fool of herself in front of an audience of law students by questioning where in the Constitution the separation of church and state appeared. Commentators have called her a national phenomenon and suggested she may even knock Sarah Palin off her perch at the top of the Tea Party.

Watch the video. Lasts 4:45 minutes 

(By the way, the Republican party establishment was deeply unhappy with O'Donnell winning the primary and getting to be the Republican candidate for the seat, but that’s another story.)

What's on my mind right now, is the difference between American TV and what I'm used to.  The first time I played this I thought it was a Democrat campaign video. Only when I played it a second time, did I appreciate that it was actually part of CNN’s news output.

The video is introduced by Anderson Cooper, a high-profile CNN anchor. A Paxman figure I guess?  It starts with a clip from a debate hosted by a law school, between O'Donnell and Democrat opponent Chris Coons. They are sparring over the teaching evolution in schools. First O’Donnell displays her ignorance of the First Amendment, to guffaws from the audience. Then we get Cooper’s derogatory comments and a series of quickfire clips of O'Donnell digging her grave by spouting about the Constitution. Terrific stuff.

O'Donnell is shown parading a "graduate fellowship from the Claremont Institute in constitutional government".  Cooper the CNN man demolishes this with : "By the way, the graduate fellowship she talks about from the Claremont Institute? The Claremont Institute is a conservative think tank, it's not a university, and the fellowship lasted a grand total of seven days ... A lot of people, including myself, get confused about constitutional amendments," Cooper says. "But not a lot of people are running for senate based on their deep analysis and study of the constitution."

The thing is, I can't imagine the BBC or RTÉ screening something like this. It would be called partisan.  I've never really watched much CNN, and I had a mental image of it as being firmly rooted in the right of politics, a sort of Fox News lite.  Clearly I got that all wrong! 

... and climate change a scientific fact ...

And another thing you wouldn't get on the BBC or RTÉ.  Here's an 11-minute piece from a radio programme called All Things Considered on NPR (National Public Radio) describing how a Republican victory in the upcoming congressional elections may mean defeat for Obama’s climate change policy. 

The presenter starts as follows: “The more carbon that gets released into the atmosphere, the higher the average temperature rises. That's a scientific fact. Human activities, such as driving, flying, building and even turning on the lights, are the biggest contributor to the release of carbon. That too, is a fact. And yet the majority of Republicans running for House and Senate seats this year disagree.”

Would you get a BBC or RTÉ presenter stating climate change facts this baldly?  Especially when it's explicitly a party political issue, as it is in this story. Wouldn't it be “most scientists says” or something along those lines?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Posh English voice demands Irish evictions

The credit rating agency Fitch attained notoriety in Ireland recently by calling for people to be evicted from their homes to help balance the banks’ books.  “Fitch wants banks to evict more Irish families” is the headline in one blog I've visited, where someone evoked the Famine with this post : “Just what the situation was lacking: a posh English voice demanding that Irish agents evict Irish people from their homes.”

Apparently Fitch Ratings MD Andrew Currie was interviewed on RTÉ TV News and said that Ireland's banks should foreclose on more residential mortgages.  It’s a terrific story and I wish I could source it in print. So far I haven't come across any evidence that Fitch has explicitly called for evictions. The Irish Times and Irish Examiner both have the following on 9th October: ' “While arrears levels continue to increase, very few loans have yet had their security enforced,” Fitch said, in reference to the relatively low number of repossessions in the Irish market. '

Credit rating agencies are an offshoot of financial journalism.  I recommend an episode of the Australian radio programme Background Briefing, broadcast on 26/7/09.  These agencies have become both critic and chef in the big financial kitchens, the blurb says, but they claim to be really journalists and take no responsibility for their advice; they are probably beyond the law, yet governments have said their advice is mandatory.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A tale told by an idiot


The queen, my lord, is dead.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

From Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

If there was a competition for the most sublime passage in the English language this would get into the top 3.  Would the other two also be by Shakespeare?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tea Party’s cold war roots

Glenn Beck – huge on the American right

Another must-listen from NPR’s Fresh Air (that’s American National Public Radio).  An interview on 13th October with Historian Sean Wilentz.

He had an article in The New Yorker on Oct 18th: “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War roots.”

He tries to answer the question, why have extremist ideas held at bay for decades inside the Republican Party exploded anew?   And why, this time, have party leaders done virtually nothing to challenge those ideas, and a great deal to abet them?

Glenn Beck the educator

You can't hear about the Tea Party without Glenn Beck’s name being mentioned. He is a Fox News host. In the interview Wilentz says Beck has emerged as a unifying figure and intellectual guide for the Tea Party movement.  Polls of Tea Party members show they respect Beck more than anyone else, even Sarah Palin, and that they consider him not as an entertainer
but as an educator.  (Rush Limbaugh in the same poll came out as an entertainer - that's the radio talk show host who is hugely influential as a conservative political commentator and opinion leader.

Beck presents himself as a truthful historian, in contrast to all the academic historians who are conspiring to hide the truth from the American people.  His bugbear is President Woodrow Wilson (the brains behind the League of Nations).  He claims Wilson was a fascist and cites the following as evidence. In Wilson’s presidency a dime coin was minted depicting war and peace. Peace was an olive branch. War was a bundle of sticks (a Roman symbol known as a fasces.) Later, Mussolini made the fasces the symbol of the Italian fascists. But Beck reversed the order of events and says  'Aha! Who brought the dime in? It was Woodrow Wilson. We've been on the road to fascism for a long time.'

“I started watching Fox News and getting more informed”

Fox News is huge in America and is a megaphone for the Tea Party. On October 14th NPR broadcast interviews with rank and file Tea Partiers to enable them to explain what makes them boil.  Retired financial services worker Shelby Burnett says : "I was unaware of what was going on around me until I retired.  And we started watching Fox News, and getting more informed on what was going on in our nation ..  We were asleep." 

Back to the Sean Wilentz interview on Fresh Air.  He describes the John Birch Society founded in 1958.  This is often mentioned in the same breath as the Tea Party, though I knew little about it. It sprang from the same root as McCarthyism. Robert Welch founded it, and seems to have run it like a dictatorship.  He saw the country as having been taken over by totalitarians, by the communists.  He said Dwight D Eisenhower was part of a communist conspiracy against America.  Wilentz says the Tea Party is reviving the John Birch Society’s ideas. Now Obama is a fascist. Or it is communist.  Can they tell the difference.

Do listen to this interview. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Koch billionaires and Tea Party funding

David H. Koch in 1996. He and his brother Charles
are lifelong libertarians and have quietly given more
than $100 million to right-wing causes.  But what's
he up to in this picture? Impersonating Hannibal?
I think I've tracked down the original exposé of the Koch brothers and their funding of the Tea Party and linked right-wing organisations.  It’s an article by Jane Mayer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, in the August 30th edition.  “Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama”.
You can hear an interview with Jane Mayer on an American radio show called Fresh Air

Fresh Air, I should add, is an excellent programme and I frequently download interviews from their site.

The article "Covert Operations" describes how the brothers' political interests dovetail with their corporate interests. Here's an extract:-
“The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry - especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a 'kingpin of climate science denial.' The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies - from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program - that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.”  

Monday, October 18, 2010

First life-friendly exoplanet may not exist

Yes, that’s the headline above a story on the New Scientist website.

It says it might be too early to claim a definitive detection of Gliese 581g. A second team of astronomers have looked for signals in their own data and failed to find it.

Francesco Pepe of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland is quoted: "We easily recover the four previously announced planets, b, c, d, and e. However, we do not see any evidence for a fifth planet in an orbit of 37 days."  He presented the results on the 11th at an International Astronomical Union symposium in Turin, Italy.  You can be sure there will be a good old ding dong about this one.  I imagine the story will appear in the magazine on 23rd Oct.

See Yes Gliese 581g actually is a milestone

Millions Stand Behind Me

"The Meaning of the Hitler Salute:
Little man asks for big gifts.
Motto: Millions Stand Behind Me!"
The front cover of the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers Illustrated Newspaper), October 1932.

Montage by John Heartfield (1891–1968). 

From the website of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which offers the following commentary :

"Heartfield published his political photomontages, many of which savagely satirized the Nazi regime, in the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung. In this widely disseminated workers' newspaper (500,000 readers in 1931), the often deceptively realistic montages appeared cheek-by-jowl with straight documentary photographs. In this montage, Heartfield specifically links Hitler's electoral success with his courting of wealthy industrialists from the Rhineland. More generally, he gives pictorial punch to the commonplace idea that money fuels political power by implying that the Nazi salute is in fact a plea for cash."

Is it accurate to characterise the Tea Party in the same way?  Amongst numerous exposés of Tea Party funding see Australian filmmaker Taki Oldham's recently released documentary, "(Astro) Turf Wars", on how corporate America is faking a grassroots revolution.  In Huffington Post.  NB I haven’t watched the film myself.

See also Is the Tea Party fascism?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Chilean miners: What is it like to be trapped?

Tim McClement spent 35 years in the Royal Navy and was a submarine commander. He writes that he can imagine the Chilean miners' plight – living in a confined space with no hope of a quick exit. In The Guardian, Wednesday 13 October. Worth reading.

Yes Gliese 581g actually is a milestone

Here's a link to an article on the Nature website which I take as confirmation that the discovery of Gliese 581g really is a significant milestone in the search for extra terrestrial life. Until I see it’s being taken seriously by Nature I'm never quite sure!  See my earlier post on this.

A paper detailing the find by Steve Vogt of the University of California, Santa Cruz and Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, is to be published in the Astrophysical Journal. We'll see what comment follows that.

But I've yet to see anything about the work at NUI Maynooth on the first cell with a nucleus. Here's the Maynooth press release. It concerns the event approximately two billion years ago, when two single cell organisms (prokaryotes) neither of which had a true nucleus, fused together to create a new entity, a eukaryote which had a nucleus. The eukaryote is the basic building block which in turn gave rise to all multi-cell organisms we know today – insects, plants, animals. The press release calls this the ‘single most phenomenal event in the history of life on the planet’, a moment which amounts to Nature’s ‘Big Bang’.

I'm looking for independent comment to justify this hype.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Revealed. The Guardian website read by Tea Party

Not for the first time I'm aghast at the tenor of comments posted on The Guardian website.

Almost all comments on the scientists letter saying cut military R&D instead of science funding, read as if they belong on Fox News.  In fact I wonder if they do.  Does the Tea Party tell its supporters to log on to the Guardian website and clutter it up with right-wing rants?   

Military research should bear brunt of science cuts, say leading scientists

36 UK professors say science cuts should focus on military research projects, including finding a replacement for Trident.  This is in an open letter to David Cameron.   Generally, scientists are aghast at the cuts proposed for scientific research. They are keenly aware how it contributes to the fabric of society, so they jump to defend it. Just as librarians will shortly become aghast at the cuts proposed for libraries, being keenly aware how libraries contribute to the fabric of society.  And care workers. And so on. All are right to stand up to Cameron’s dismantling of the state. Don’t believe his this will hurt me more than it hurts you stuff. This is his agenda.  He relishes it. 

The scientists are concerned that while the government is threatening to cut public funding for research and development as a whole, it appears to be committed to maintaining high levels of military-related R&D. World-class research into health and global environmental problems is under threat, they say, yet the government continues to fund the vast research programme at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston.

They note that the current defence ministry research budget is more than 20 times public funding for
research on renewable energy.

However, they say there are some areas of security-related
research that should be expanded. Such as monitoring of arms control agreements, non-violent conflict resolution, and tackling the roots of conflict and insecurity.

Full text of letter  It’s been co-ordinated by Scientists for Global Responsibility, an organisation I belong to as an associate member.

Chile miners rescue

The capsule : will become object of veneration
29 miners rescued now.  4 more of the original 33 to come up, plus several rescuers.  Been watching BBC News on and off throughout the day.

You can be sure that capsule will be erected in a museum and will become an object of national veneration. It’s striking how the operation has been the focus of huge national pride, flags and chanting “Chi – le”.  Some scenes have brought a tear to the eye.  Great dignity of the miners. The occupation of miner, toiling in the bowels of the earth to enrich the already rich, has forever been a powerful icon of capitalism.

The president of Chile has just been interviewed and said “I hope that from now, when people hear the word Chile, they will remember not the coup or the dictatorship but this rescue”. 

From The Guardian website “several commentators – including international trade unions – have pointed to Chile's failure to ratify International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on safety and health in mines, and drawn attention to the consequences of inadequate workplace safety standards across the country.”

The behaviour of the mining company San Esteban seems to have been disgraceful. Partly explained perhaps by the fact that they look like being forced into well deserved bankruptcy. After the August 5 cave-in that trapped the workers, the company sacked more than 200 other miners, refusing to pay their wages and entitlements.  The miners union in Chile, is still, even now, pursuing demands that the government pay the workers’ wages if the company won’t.  The Chilean president in the interview I've just seen deflected a question put to him on this.

A comment on the website of the US trade union federation AFL-CIO draws a disparaging contrast with how the Bush administration handled the New Orleans hurricane: “The entire country turned out for the miners. There are celebrations throughout Chile. The President is at a 24 hour watch at the site, greeting the miners as they come out. The operation cost 9 million dollars and the mine owner is being fined 10 million. The miners will get constant medical attention for 6 months. Then there was Katrina ...”