Saturday, October 5, 2013

Why I welcome the vote to keep the Irish senate

Two posters both urging a YES in yesterday's Irish referendum. 10/10 for the Socialist Party poster.  0/10 for the inaccurate, dishonest and populist poster put up by Fine Gael, the centre-right main government party.

Irish senate referendum posters, Dublin Socialist Party left, Fine Gael right. The Socialist Party focuses attention on the tiny elite electorate for the senate, congregated in Dublin 4. Dublin 10 is a working class area. They put up similar posters in other cities.
The voters were asked to assent to a government proposal to abolish the upper house of the Irish parliament, Seanad Éireann.  Although you can't argue with the Socialist Party case, I did. I voted no, and I'm glad about the result: YES 48.3%, NO 51.7%,  on a miserable 40% turnout (nearly).

Just to be clear, none of the reasons for keeping the senate are strong and most are invalid. The Irish Seanad bears no resemblance whatever to the US senate (either in its composition or powers) and a very close resemblance to the House of Lords. So why keep it for heavens sake? I certainly don't support keeping the Seanad in its present form (no-one does) and I'm not even wedded to the idea that Ireland needs a 2-chamber parliament. A lot needs fixing in the Irish constitution. The Dáil is (like the House of Commons) a tool of the government of the day, the Seanad is almost powerless, local government has even less independence than in England, corruption is an issue.

Had the abolition proposal come to us as part of a reasoned plan to strengthen the parliament against the government, and to loosen the iron grip of centralisation, it would have had my support. But I objected to being thrown the “less politicians” bone to distract from austerity. This referendum was a stunt pulled by prime minister Enda Kenny and he got the result he deserved.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

We plough the fields and scatter

The field behind our house:  the tractors were there last week.  We have plans.  A wildflower meadow.  A bit of lawn in the middle. A summer house. The photo with the sheep (of which more below) shows how lumpy the field used to be, most uncomfortable to walk on, with the risk of sprained ankles. So we paid for the field to be ploughed, harrowed, seeded and rolled, and now we’ve had plenty of rain and each morning look for first signs of the grass sprouting. 

One could ask, indeed I do ask, why our field hasn’t become a wildflower meadow already. I neglected it for years, withstood insistent advice from farmers to spray the nettles, and had a donkey in it all summer. Too late, oh too late, I've read this advice from Plantlife on creating a wildflower meadow:

“Firstly, remove the top few inches of very fertile topsoil in late summer, perhaps making some raised beds for vegetables from it. This can be hard work but is essential, as wildflowers must have poor soil to thrive.”

That nettles grow prolifically, is a sign of fertility, I believe.  So I guess my hopes will be frustrated. I do have one last throw of the dice though. Yellow rattle: a lovely annual “with a slightly sinister character”. Its roots tap into those of grasses, stealing their nutrients and suppressing their growth. This keeps them in check and many other meadow flowers benefit from the reduced grass growth. Must investigate where to get the seed.

A plug for Plantlife, an organisation I'm proud to belong to. It speaks up for and works to protect wild plants and fungi in Britain, campaigns on invasive plants, claims success in updating the law to include over 50 species that it is now an offence to plant or cause to grow in the wild, campaigns for a ban on sale of invasive plants, and owns a farm reserve in Kent with a 57 ha wildflower meadow.

Now a word about those sheep. The flock (I counted 23 of them) invaded our field in late July. For over a week they drifted in and out, visiting the fields of the surrounding farmers.  Everyone knows whose land they came from, though I'm too polite to mention your name here! As it happens we didn't mind the sheep invading our little field; but still and all it was a bit of a liberty.  And the adjoining farmers were NOT PLEASED. They resented the sheep eating their grass every bit as you would resent a neighbour walking into your house and plugging in an electric cable to power their tumbler drier from.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In which Jane Austen illusions are shattered

Fota House near Cork
Happy days. The first session of a Jane Austen class. An evening class in the morning if you will. And just to give us all the right ambience, the venue is Fota House, a stately home near Cork. Mainly ladies of a certain age, plus two blokes of a certain age of which I'm one. It's called “Austen’s World in Novels and Film” and it caught my attention because one of the three films we're going to look at just happens to be my all time favourite: Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility.

Emma Thompson as Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, 1995
Today we did Jane Austen’s world and Regency England. Jane Austen’s well-known opposition to the slave trade came up. But disappointingly for Jane Austen fans, well-known though this opposition might be, it turns out to be well-known on rather slender evidence. One sentence namely in Mansfield Park where the (slightly annoying though that’s not the point here) heroine Fanny Price has her attempt to raise the slave trade as a dinner table topic rebuffed with a general silence.

Another illusion gone: it turns out the famous portrait of Jane Austen may not be a very good likeness. “Hideously unlike” according to a niece. Actually it gets worse. The portrait we are all familiar with is a later copy of the one panned as hideously unlike. 

A copy from an original which was itself “hideously unlike”

Sunday, September 29, 2013

"Comments can be bad for science"

"Comments can be bad for science" is a surprising statement from Popular Science, explaining why their website, has shut comments off.

This magazine devoted to science and technology news was founded in 1872, and is “committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. ”

But they say the problem is that trolls and spambots have overwhelmed intellectual debate, and diminished their ability to spread the word of science. “It wasn't a decision we made lightly.” They claim research points to the depressing conclusion that ignorant and vituperative comments can skew popular perception of issues such as climate change. Full story here. is a site I like to keep an eye on.  For example a recent article on How Do You Dispose Of Chemical Weapons?

Syrian soldier in gas mask from
(Wikimedia Commons)