Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Category: scientific progress

The bankers’ card and future terror

Acting Editor’s note: as our Editor is at a conference in Sweden on investment in broccoli, I am filling in for him, and am taking this opportunity to post a couple of items we received earlier but which for some reason seem to have been overlooked until now.

One of my neighbours went up the university the other day to find out what sort of value we’re getting for all the money they take out of our taxes.  He wasn’t very impressed, but if you ask me I don’t know how he could tell because he wouldn’t know how much all the wages were and how much money all the students were paying to go there, and all that side of things.  He did say it seemed like a sort of park, very nice living conditions, and lots of people wandering about not doing much.  But the thing that really interested me, was he said he met these scientists.  They said they were all scientists and they were all wearing white coats so it’s probably genuine.  They told him that scientists are getting cleverer and cleverer and they told him that now there are lots of subjects they teach up there where scientists can prove most things you want, so long as you tell them what it is you want and find the right scientists, and give them enough money, and get the right journalists to put it on the internet, though how journalists come into it I don’t really see.  But one thing I’d like to see them find is a way how you can get a crooked banker into jail.  Marvellous isn’t it.  Politicians are all issued with get-out-of-jail-real-quick cards, but the bankers must be top of the whole shooting match because it seems like what they get is never-go-to-jail-at-all cards (and pass go, and collect £2 million pounds).

Jack Edwards

London

It may all be too late but just in case it is not, may I suggest to those reading that they should start trying to work out strategies for surviving the near future, in case they do. The terrors in store are legion.  New 3-D printers mean lethal weapons may be in the hands of every other teenage hoodlum.  And it is certainly not simply a matter of teenagers and weapons.  Leave a key unattended for just thirty seconds, and a camera can take three quick photographs, which the internet and 3-D printing can use to produce a copy, without the key’s owner having the least idea that a copy exists.  The sculpture side, at least, of the art market will collapse.  Forgeries of all kinds from birth certificates to driving licenses to fraudulent contracts will flood the corridors of bureaucracy to waist height.  Meanwhile, genetically modified human beings with powers of memory and speeds of reaction out of reach of the most talented today will be growing up to fill all places in top universities and sports teams; the uncouth among them will make it dangerous for the unmodified to visit nightclubs; the criminal among them will accumulate wealth allowing them to purchase whole countries as their personal playthings.  Nanodrones will fill the air in such numbers that even the genetically modified joggers (at their steady fifteen miles an hour) will have to wear masks to avoid swallowing one.  Every second the nanodrones will pour a torrent of information about each citizen into the megadatabanks of their government (and, simultaneously, into the megadatabanks of that country’s enemies).  The sensors on the nanodrones will record every sideways glance towards the window of those who can still find work to be done by humans, will analyse the bacterial and alcoholic content of the breath of each commuter arriving home, and will capture each facial reaction and muttered remark in front of the screen emitting the evening’s choice of what will still be called entertainment.  If the facial reactions, as analysed by a government-run computer programme, are categorised as anti-social, another computer will issue an order to the police for your arrest, you will be tried before a jury of a single computer programmed to deliver twelve opinions on your case, each one being a prediction of the reaction of a typical human (from a databank of average citizens established by a government computer programme), and after being found guilty you will be free to walk to the prison the next day, knowing that any failure to arrive on time will prompt instant tasering delivered at five minute intervals by nanodrones, until you appear at the correct destination.

     Now we know why such large numbers have applied for the several projects already begun, for one-way trips to Mars.  For those who prefer to keep their gravitational attraction at normal levels there seems no chance of finding any overall strategy for a comfortable and untroubled existence, but some individual measures may help a little here and there.  Buy a bullet-proof jacket and a plausible university degree soon, if you do not already have one (and apart from anything else the price is going to soar in coming years anyway).  Borrow a 3-D printer and run up some forgeries of your own, for instance you could try your luck with a certificate from the government of Montenegro confirming that your house is a diplomatic residence and therefore not liable to be entered by British police or any other officials (nor required to pay council tax).  Become accustomed to staying indoors as much as possible. and in particular avoid visits to nightclubs.  Do not buy sculptures, or, to be on the safe side, any other works of art.  For dealing with those nanodrones, you will obviously keep the windows shut, and it would be wise to buy, online, one of those electrically charged ping-pong bats and pretend to be using it to kill flies – as you swipe around you, shout aloud and very clearly ‘Damn all insects’.  Keep tight control on your reactions when watching any screen; a smile in the wrong place can be just as dangerous as a frown.  Quite generally, be as inconspicuous as possible.  Do not respond to government surveys, except to say you are fully satisfied.  Do not respond to those invitations, on air or on the internet, to send in your views on some current topic whatever it might be.  If you have to go out for some reason, give way to everyone, especially the genetically modified; always obey official notices, policemen, and anyone in uniform; walk with your head bowed and a shambling gait.  To be honest, even if you do all this, it cannot be more than a temporary measure, but you may perhaps at least survive long enough to hear the news that all contact has been lost with the colonists on Mars.

Jojo Ceausescu

Rabat

Parthian shots

1) Osama Bin Laden’s photograph   2) efficient communication   3) morphology and the islamic world          4) prediction            Future distributions, if any: see special announcement at the end

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The deputy editor writes: our editor left two weeks ago, asserting that the stress of business in this office forced him to book in for a week at what he decided to call a ‘meditation centre’.  It now seems he has extended his visit to Cebu, reasons unknown, but yesterday Andrew, an old friend of his since the days in Sun City (when Jim still had a full set of toes), dropped in to the office bringing this short piece together with a note from Jim insisting on it going into the next distribution, i.e. this one.   (I personally disclaim responsibility for allowing such a farrago of hypothesis onto our site):

‘That photo of Bin Laden, keeps turning up in the prints and online as well, but there are some very odd points about it.  First off, it was obviously not taken when a helicopter had just landed outside and heavily armed soldiers were crashing through the doorway.  But this was the only time when he was in that room in company with any of his opponents.  On the other hand, he was not in the habit of holding open house, so this snapshot could only have been taken by a friend or a servant, yet nobody who fell under those headings would have been trying to make him look feeble or despondent which pretty clearly was the intention of the photographer, who therefore would have had to be on the ‘other side’.  But as I’ve said none of those on that side were close enough to take such a photo, even supposing that he would sit quietly to let them take it.  That’s all supposing it really is Bin Laden anyway.  A view of an elderly Asian, heavily bundled up, three-quarters view from behind?!  As for the claim that the man in the photograph was watching a soap opera, how could we know since we’re not shown what he’s looking at.  How could anyone know, except trusted supporters, who wouldn’t be trying to take a photo showing him like a poverty-stricken elderly refugee with nothing better to do than sit on the floor watching television.  And if some of his friends had been taking photographs to make him look bad, do we say the execution squad was lucky to pick this one up, or unlucky that they couldn’t find a better one?

            When will guys realise that the more lies you put into a case, the weaker you make it?’

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Opinion piece (Julitta Pulversie)

Is this really the era of communication, with Flitter, Facetube, and Inked-up, all competing for a place in the frontal lobes of victims of screenfever (as well as hundreds of antisocial networks and a number of outright nasties, a.k.a. ‘governments’)?  It has to be admitted that the marvels of modern technology have dramatically changed possibilities: it is now possible to sit at one’s desk and with a single click send a message off to destinations all around the world so that not one, but many thousands, both private individuals and commercial companies, may all fail to answer it.  In other words we have to refine previous notions, and distinguish between old-fashioned communication which (along with correspondence) is a bilateral business, and on the other hand modern economical, time-saving, one-way communication.  Unofficial leaks from the headquarters of a  leading organisation guarding the security of electronic data transmission report that the percentage of unanswered communications has reached a new all-time high.  An initial message, known as the αcom (pronounced ‘alpha-com’), is counted as answered if a βcom, a reply, makes a return journey between the same two communication points within 72 hours.  On Thursday last the overall percentage of βcoms neasured against the αcoms fell to a new low of 8.1% – even when identifiable spam was excluded from the αcom total.  That is, about 11 out of every 12 non-spam messages sent was unanswered, thus providing the world’s information transmission system with enormous savings in time and money.

            There are no figures available for any exact comparison with thirty or forty years ago but research by the British Post Office (shortly to be converted into a retail chain specialising in stationery and office equipment, dropping the time-wasting transmission of personal mail though still open to logistics contracts for bulk delivery of advertising material) has suggested that personal correspondence back in those days was predominantly a two-way affair, even if a longer timespan had to be allowed for replies since transmission was in those days physical not electronic.  The estimate was that in the early 1980s about 11 letters out of 12 would be answered within two weeks.

            We need a new term for this more careful concept of messages hurtling through cyberspace like missiles ¹   on their way to points from which nothing will return.  ‘One-way communication’ is far too wordy.  Perhaps, bearing in mind the reputation, justified or not, of the famous triangle, we can call them ‘Bermudan messages’; and the activity of the optimists sitting at keyboards or prodding touch-screens to send them off in their millions will therefore be ‘Bermuding’.

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¹ Jeremy wishes to add a note that, according to his personal research, with some servers a more accurate phrase might be ‘faster than a fairly fit carrier pigeon’

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Linguistic corner (contributed by Svetlana Helgasdottir, docent in the Freie Universität Neasden)  The western news media are flushed and breathing hard with reports of islamists taking control of territories all over northern Africa.  Unless I am much mistaken this is a striking change from just a decade ago when those nations were known to have a moslem population (or in the case of very elderly journalists ‘a mohammedan people’).  The suffix ‘-ist’ has had a patchy career.  It was borrowed originally from the Greeks (who would probably like to claim it back or even better to have a large sum to cover unpaid fees for its use) but at first served simply to refer to someone regularly associated with an activity indicated by the first part of the word to which it was attached: harpist, pianist, artist, optimist, physicist.  Often there are groups of people who specialise in those activities, and so naturally ‘-ist’ was also used when the emphasis was on the group or some shared characteristic of the group rather than the activity itself: communist, socialist, impressionist, monarchist.  (This is language at work, not a mathematical system, so of course what we find are family resemblances among different uses of a suffix, no exact criteria.)   From this point it is not at all surprising that it became especially common with political groupings.  As geopolitics became more complex over the past two centuries the number of recognisable political groups increased, and their sheer number together with the fatal tribal impulse in human nature guaranteed most of them would be viewed with disfavour by any randomly selected citizen – ‘our side’ against the rest.  From the point of view of the European voting classes, colonies which wanted their freedom were full of nationalists.  The proletariats, who obediently thought as their country’s leaders instructed them, deplored the influence of marxists.  ‘Communist’ which started out as simply a designation for people subscribing to a particular social theory soon acquired this new nuance (and hasn’t it raced ahead on that route since!) 

            Given the way that history actually developed (egged on by a popular press and populist  politicians) it was entirely to be expected that the suffix would soon be used when with the implication not merely ‘on the other side, and disliked’ but ‘on the other side doing evil stuff’; thus the predominant use of anarchist, extremist, terrorist, and more recently fascist and Maoist (but let’s be kind and exclude dentist from this group)We now have a suffix with various nuances: on the other side, doing evil stuff, member of a group, attachment to a particular idea or theory, or a particular activity.  As already said this is not a mathematical system and one still finds the suffix where one or more of these ideas is not required; for instance, arsonists are not normally considered to gather together in groups.  (Also of course where a name for members of the other side was already well established there was no need to import the suffix;  Democrats continue to speak of Republicans, not Republicists, though perhaps both groups may feel that, as politicians, there is one ‘other side’ group they are are opposed to, namely the lobbyists?)  But where all those shades of meaning are felt to be present, ‘-ist’ is now definitely the favoured suffix.  There is now little danger of encountering anarcheers, extremians, or terrorites.

            So it is interesting to see the political groups in northern Africa who have a moslem allegiance referred to frequently as islamist in news reports, instead of the previously normal islamic or moslem, even when speaking of groups not engaging in violence.  Now whether the change was actually engineered by forces with axes to grind, or whether it has been promoted after appearing spontaneously is not the point.  What is a factor to be taken into account is the nuance usually carried along with the suffix.  It is then worth noticing that the islamic groups currently holding power in Egypt, put there by two successive free elections which each gave them around 65% of the vote are now widely referred to as an islamist government, while it is those opposed to them who have formed a clear majority of those rioting and throwing stones in Tahrir Square.

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prediction (after our note in the previous distribution about Leah Menshevik’s shrewd prediction, two readers have written in to comment that our own record is good enough to justify including a prediction with each distribution.  As stated in the announcement below, the journal may not be able to provide a regular feature on these lines.  Nevertheless here at least we can offer one, borrowed with permission from The Tale of Esmond Maguire pt 3 (§ 137):

            Oscar tells me that the way things are going in neurology, it will one day be possible to have elections that are truly and deeply democratic, where not merely are numbers counted, but strength of support is measured individually for each elector with respect to each candidate.  Of course, those same advances will make it unlikely that any régime, once in power, will ever find itself inclined to hold the elections.

honor hominesque honesti floreant

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announcement: The trouble with CENSOR (see earlier distributions) continues, even though we did no more than reprint items from Luddites Gazette (now indefinitely forbidden publication since they were unable to reach the appeals tribunal within the time limit set).  A final decision about our service is to be handed down on 1st April, and we have been given a temporary ban for the intervening period.  However, as often with authoritarian bodies, they have combined injustice with incompetence, and the ban was ordered for the whole of the month of March; they apparently thought this would include our next distribution scheduled for the first of that month.  So we are bringing the distribution forward by one day.  For prospects in the longer term check this site on 2nd April.

Exuberant irrationality

Readers’ letters   Victorian spaceships   royal assets   Tea Party policy?   Marathon times     next distribution scheduled 30-9-12

Jeremy:  Hallo, Jeremy and Simon here!  Welcome all!  This is going to be a bit different from the usual Cold Salad distributions…

Simon: Good thing too!

Jeremy: With my best French accent – Attention au cake-hole, you idiot.  They’re almost certain to read what we’ve sent out when they come back.

Simon: Doubt it.  They never read stuff after they’ve sent it out.  Never even open readers’  letters.

Jeremy: Anyway all our big boys are away on their holidays.  Editor staying with his sister in Eastbourne …

Simon: In detox probably.

Jeremy: Oh you are a nasty boy today!  Do shut up.  As I was saying, Deputy Ed is checking his native Scotland is still there.  The lovely Isabelita…

Simon: Our princess.

Jeremy: As you rightly say, our princess.   Off with her uncle in Italy.  Long holidays they must have where he comes from.  Manos is still in London, doubtless driving Mervyn King nuts.   No risk of the Mad Doc coming in because his wife’s got an exhibition in Dublin all through September.  So we are keeping base clean…

Simon: !

Jeremy: …sort of, and we have permission to push something out if anything interesting comes in from Luddites  Now they didn’t actually say we couldn’t push out anything else so this is what we have on the menu.  First we are going to attend to some of those readers’ letters, then maybe add a comment or two about things that have gone out in the past few weeks where we two weren’t allowed to give an opinion, and then finish up with one or two ideas of our own.  We found the letters in a bin in the backyard.  Simon and me usually come in the back way so we don’t have to get past the dog, and I suppose some cats had a fight and knocked the bin over.  Anyway here is Fanny Carasheen writing from Hartlepool back in May and she wants to know why this distribution system is called Cold Salad.  Actually, Fanny it’s what you call an acronym; it comes from the initial letters of Club of obstinate lunatics determined to struggle against lies and distortions which was how someone described them when they were getting started and they were actually rather proud.  But the editors are trying to go quiet on it now because they found out some malicious hacker had changed it everywhere to Compendium of leaks from the Department of specious allegations, lies, ambiguities and denials.

  Next letter.  Nathanael Apomba, of Kirkwall – that’s in Norway, isn’t it?  “That bit you sent out back in April, about the alien onions, I’ve been thinking about it.  I had this idea.  Suppose you could muck about with the geans of a kid, you could save a lot on electricity for nightlights for kids if you got one of those geans from jellyfish and put it in him, because then he would glow sort of green colour in the dark.”   Hmm!  Enough said really.

Simon: I like it.  But what about the tentacles?  And better make sure you never take the kid to the seaside.

Jeremy: Whatever.  Anyway here’s another.  Oh, this is a sad one.  “I like it when the sky is blue, and birdies chirrup sweet and true.  My friends come round and ask to play and then we go down to the bay.” Some kid heard about the poetaster job we’re offering.  ‘Gillian’, no other name, no address.  Editors should have put some age limit in the ad.  Erm, oh!  Ah, now I’m not so sure I was right on first impression.  Hear this; verse 5: “I lie beside him in the grass, he rubs his hand across m …”  No.  Definitely not our style Simon.

Simon: Not yours, you mean, don’t you?

Jeremy: Ahem.  Now this one’s from dear old Oz.  Oh dear me!  Sooo formal!  “Sirs, Ruminating on the introduction of computerised voting machines in certain  countries, is this not a golden opportunity to make use of the idea of the negative vote?  It is only too plausible that the voter will discover there is no candidate for whom he feels able to cast a positive ballot, but quite probable that there is at least one whom he knows to be an outright scoundrel.  He should be able to cast a negative vote to subtract one from the total otherwise accumulated by said candidate.

Simon: Brilliant idea!  Bit boring though.  Let me have one to read.  What about this? “Dear Sirs, I wonder if you would consider helping me by publicising a museum I have set up.  I have been fortunate in acquiring a good few pieces of equipment, decorations, and furnishings such as leather armchairs, gaslamps and antimacassars, all of which I am reliably assured are authentic relics from early Victorian spaceships before the programme was abandoned owing to the costs of the Crimean adventure.  My museum…”  Oh jeez, poor loon!  He’s even enclosed a photograph, though why there’s a diver’s helmet … Oh I see.  Someone must have told him it was from a spacesuit.  Back in the bin for that.  Him as well would be a good idea.  Wow, this next one has a sticker on the envelope, ‘Fiends of Latvian literature’.  Don’t think I’ll risk opening that one.  Oh, let’s ditch the rest of the letters.  Weren’t we going to add some intelligent comments on what the top brass have been distributing?

Jeremy: Actually, the only thing I’d add is that the Chinese sending their millions on trips abroad to keep them out of political business is a pain in the backside to the rest of us.  Try and get a gondola ride in Venice, and they’re all booked up for the next six hours by Chinese tour groups, even the Huns can’t get in.  Can’t get a decent photograph of a friend standing under the Eiffel tower because of dense crowds of elderly chin-high Chinese milling around in the way or squinting through their glasses at your camera and then shuffling off giggling.

Simon: Too right.  Except the ones laughing at your camera will be Japanese.  But didn’t you want to say something of your own about the royal tits?  Sounds like a flying version of the royal corgis, doesn’t it?

Jeremy: Ah, the holiday snaps of la belle duchesse!  Except I don’t think marrying into the family makes you personally royal, does it?  I suppose if you had a complete blood transfusion from one of them, maybe that would count.  Do they ever give blood?

Simon: I doubt it, because if they did somebody by now would certainly have stolen some and put it on eBay.

Jeremy: That’s no proof because you could put a test tube up for sale and just say ‘believed to be genuinely royal’, like a coach saying ‘we all believe this great athlete is dope-free’; and if you were American you’d probably put blue dye in the test tube to really convince the punters.  I expect people do it all the time, but MI6 probably have an ultra-efficient cyberguillotine which cuts the advert into tiny electrons before it ever sets foot in cyberspace.

Sinon: You’re trying to change the subject.  Jealous?

Jeremy: I don’t know what you could possibly be referring to.  But to be serious, I really can’t see what the fuss is about.  I mean, nobody has done anything, all that’s happened is that now we all have evidence she’s a thoroughly normal woman, which is what the masses all assume and want anyway.  Was anybody suspecting she was hiding something else inside the clothing, a couple of cornish pasties for a quick snack or something?  If the photos showed that she didn’t have normal female equipment in there, then there might have been a reason for trying to suppress the pictures.  It’s not as if they’re a rare female feature.  All normal woman are born to be like that if they grow up – lucky them.

Simon: Meaning, Jeremy?

Jeremy: After all, very few statues of female human beauty try to pretend they’re not there.  Now, I don’t want to talk about that any more, if you don’t mind.  Isn’t it time we went upstairs to throw the whalemeat down to the dog?

Simon: Oh jeez, I forgot!  He didn’t get any this morning because I couldn’t get the window open, and I meant to go back and oil the lock, but when I came down there was that story on the television about scientists working on viruses to attack specific occupations, especially politicians.  Remember?  They reckon 85% of politicians have particular patterns in their DNA which are rare in the normal population and that it should be possible to redesign viruses so they will attack just that group.

Jeremy: Those Tea Party scientists you mean?  Said they really know a way to cut the size of government?

Simon: Tea Party?

Jeremy: Yes.  But what you saw was just the intro.  Then you went out to get the croissants and the olives.  Those weren’t real scientists, they were just actors, acting out the dreams of some of the more enthusiastic supporters of the Tea Party.  Actually, it sounded like cutting the size of government is just a side issue with that lot.  Near the end, they brought on this old chap, looked as if he’d walked straight out of one of those films about plantation-owners before the Civil War, and he seemed to sum it all up rather simply: ‘What we want is freedom.  I don’t want Washington taking any of my money to share round causes other than me, and I want Washington to scrap every one of those damn rules that are stopping me doing what I want’.

Simon: Surprise me some more.  Anyway, haven’t we got enough now?

Jeremy:I reckon that’ll do.  But didn’t you want to do a challenge of the month or something?

Simon: Oh fetid kidneys.  I forgot that.  But I’ve got one ready, just let me find it.  Right!  Mr Ryan, vice-presidential candidate, claimed on radio this August that his best time for the marathon was ‘two hours and fifty-something’.  But it turns out he has only run a marathon once, an event called ‘Grandma’s Marathon’ in 1990, and at the time he finished in four hours, one minute, and a bit.  So the challenge is: if we assume that this amazing improvement, over twenty-one years, could be matched by the world’s top marathon runners, starting from now (two hours, three minutes and thirty-eight seconds) what is the earliest year in which it will be possible to report that some runner somewhere must have finished the race before he started?

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honor honestique floreant

Supplement a

1) Editor’s note; 2) political geometry; 3) climate change; 4) science news; 5) antique principle

From the Editor.   There were privately circulated pre-launch editions of Cold Salad, and it has been suggested that those could now be posted for the wider audience.  This would smack of ‘filler’ journalism as currently popular in the alternative universe of the ‘media’ (in fact often the main component even in news broadcasts, on channels stoically cutting costs like the BBC).  However three items in particular have been cited, so we shall use them and thus get a little more spare time to practise scrimshaw on the bones of shipwrecked sailors that lie scattered all round the coasts of this island. (Tourists queue up to buy the stuff, though to tell the truth we usually just buy bones from a local butcher.) With apologies to the privileged few who have seen them before we add one of those items at the end here, with the others proposing to re-appear later.

  Before pressing the starter button, though, it occurs to me that cost-cutting in the media very often seems to succeed in sparing that vital administrative layer at the upper end.  ‘We are all in this together’ would of course be a disastrous principle to follow when trying to make a business – or a country – more efficient, and it is a relief to see it discarded not merely in the media but right across the whole range of activities in all modern developed economies.  I’ve been ruminating on a possible ‘Cold Salad Law of disemployment’: other things equal, the chances of losing one’s job are inversely proportional to d, one’s distance from the base of the hierarchy, while d is directly proportional, other things equal, to the chances of doing the actual work.  Might be worth running that past my audience at my speech to the Women’s Institute next week.

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Political geometry

  One of the humbugs that the collective British psyche likes to suck on from time to time is the idea that Britain has the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy.  There are reasons why this sweetmeat should not be swallowed whole; for one, it is not true – both the Isle of Man and Iceland have older independent parliaments (insofar as any political entity other than a state at the top of the current international foodchain can be said to be independent.)  Another problem is the strange aftertaste, namely a belief that Britain’s arrangement, with ‘our side’ against ‘the opposition’, is the world’s best system of government.  Now the capacity to believe one thing while standing in front of its diametrical opposite is one of the more bizarre human traits that nature may not have foreseen when she allowed the first crossopterygian to flop out of the steaming oceans onto the Devonian mudflats.  Nonetheless it is there now, along with more predictable qualities such as altruism, hatred, dishonesty, and greed.  (Surely a little more effort could have anticipated bankers, and devised some predator to take care of that problem.)  If you want evidence of the capacity, remember that tribe in the Amazon who are reported to believe in all seriousness that they are (perhaps in some clintonian sense) a species of red parrot. Nevertheless the conflict between belief and reality in this matter of British parliamentary excellence is so acute that even the most governable citizen may spot the problem if somehow able to view it at a distance great enough.

  In fact the British parliament, is like the twin heads of a monster.  Below the neck the two competing sides are so similar that grosso modo they might be treated as one, and often are.  But no matter what ideas are forced by whatever means into one head, in nearly every case some obscure hydraulic fault in the political physiology results merely in the exhalation of vapours of an exactly countervailing composition from the other head.  If anything is ever done with the ideas, it is done elsewhere at another time, and in the main by other actors. That is, the noise in parliament may be an echo of the roaring and grating sounds as the country rumbles along, but the motive forces operate elsewhere.

  The odd thing is that the pundits who agree that a two-sided parliament, both reflecting and encouraging conflict, is not constructive often assume it is one of only three possible arrangements.  One of the two others is to abolish the adversarial system by getting rid of the adversary, in other words install an autocracy in which case the way that a parliament – if any – is conducted becomes immaterial.  But the trouble with this approach to making the trains run on time is that they tend to run over human and social rights strapped to the rails not far up the line.  The other popular solution is to replace the two-sided asylum by a more or less semicircular chamber as in France with seating arranged according to where members see themselves in the political spectrum.  The idea here is that members will appreciate that political differences do not necessarily mean barking hostility and a stark contrast between right and wrong, because they sit next to others who hold basically similar views but disagree on details.  And there is no visible yawning pit at any point beyond which the inhabitants are clearly too alien to wear white hats and must therefore be enemy forces, and if they are too far away round the circumference verbal and physical combat becomes impracticable anyway.

  The semicircular chamber is certainly heading in the right direction.  What is wrong with it is the seating fixed according to political beliefs, and it is really quite easy to overcome this.  One rather attractive idea would be to group members by the geographical area which they represent, irrespective of party allegiance.  Or we could simply place them in an alphabetical order.  Or we could arrange them in the same way as platoons in the army, tallest on the right, shortest on the left.  This might lead to grumbles from the tallest men since in the nature of things they would tend to get less opportunity to socialise with the opposite sex, but then tall men have built-in advantages in this respect anyway.  But the idea which we like best is the one which follows what you do with children at some birthday parties, where a number is pinned on each guest as they come in, and that gives them their seat when the bunfighting begins.  This way the members of a parliament would get a different seat each day.  Sooner or later they would be almost bound to meet most of the other members close up, and could hardly avoid coming to see their neighbour for the day as a human being.  They would then be so taken up with observing his or her personal habits – cleaning ears with a pencil, nose-picking, carrying a briefcase full of garlic sausage sandwiches, breaking wind and so on – that there would be little time to explore the neighbour’s identity as a personification of one of the more repellent forms of political wickedness.  A disadvantage of this system is that it might lend itself to manipulation; the more cunning among the politicians might lurk around the entrance so that they either accompany or avoid some particular fellow member.  This, however, could be overcome by linking entrance numbers to seat numbers on a random basis, easy enough with a small computer and appropriate software.

  But if we are really looking for ways to improve the parliamentary system, perhaps it is superficial merely to allocate seats in the chamber by lottery.  An idea which must naturally occur to us, and we dare say many would agree, is `Wouldn’t it be better to go the whole hog and choose the members by lottery in the first place?’

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Climate change.  The question is ‘What effective action can be taken against global warming?’  The answer is ‘None’.  There will be no effective action against climate change, because the great majority of those who would have to take it are politicians in countries with elections.  Their primary goal is winning at the next election, at most four or five years away.  (If they were to propose sensible measures their opponents would get in by promising the opposite.)  Action against climate change would not produce useful results within a period of at the very least fifteen years.  Precisely analogous considerations apply to autocratic rulers except those blindly confident of staying in power, who are consequently likely soon to lose it, and be replaced by some ruler of the other varieties.

Quod est desperandum.

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Science news

The lengths to which some governments will go in order to get rid of their research budget are marvellous to behold.  Recently scientists in Idaho announced that they had discovered that Prozac leads fish to develop symptoms of autism.  It is true that there is not much else to do in Idaho except grow and eat potatoes.  Nevertheless we are impressed.  What next?  Dosing chickens with diphenhydramine to see if it induces dyslexia?  Mandelic acid in the feed for goats as a factor in attention-deficit disorder?

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Principles of the past

Simple Simon [our unpaid office intern reading from a scrap of paper on the notice board]:

      The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government

Who said that?  Some sort of wishy-washy softy leftist, I suppose.

The Deputy Editor [irritated]: Not in the least.  Absolutely not.

Simon  Well, OK.  But not in a position where he could actually face that sort of situation.

Dep. Ed.  On the contrary,  in a position of the highest responsibility for lives and deaths.

Simon  But obviously not in a crisis when he might really have to act on his principle.

Dep. Ed.  That was Churchill, British prime minister, November 1943

Cutting loose

The shocking theft of all the bicycles in the Luddites’ Gazette yard has left them unable to maintain their normal delivery service.  So by mutual agreement our contract to distribute cuttings from their journal has been suspended and in the meantime Cold Salad will be compiled from other sources, still presented as far as possible twice in the lunar month.

Fair play!

Not a few around the world have been inclined to criticise the United States over the past ninety years or so for small gaps between the admirable ideals the government proclaims, and indeed claims, and what actually happens in practice, eg the recurrent difficulty about identifying wedding parties at distances of over 6,000 miles which does little good for the nation’s foreign policy goals, quite apart from the appalling mayhem to the human beings on the wrong end of the ’scope.  Let us therefore commend a recent success of the US in their efforts for ‘international solidarity and co-operation’ (to use the formulation of the Secretary of State speaking earlier this month).  The case is the more noteworthy since it was clearly not achieved by striving for particular selfish advantage for themselves.

   In 1969 China and the Soviet Union, despite their shared lip service to communist dogma, were in a shooting war along their common frontier.  Now, as America takes an increasingly close interest in what might be termed her ‘second backyard’ on the other side of the Pacific we see China and Russia sharing in, and to a great extent dominating, a meeting of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which unites them and the nations between, and is aimed, explicitly, at closer cultural, economic, and military co-operation.

From the Editor

Britain is to national emotion what the Maldives are to oceanic geography.  Once again its inhabitants find themselves bobbing about on the surface of a gently heaving swell, the aftermath of a storm of national feeling that has swept over the island.  Perhaps fortunately this one is a warm salty flow imparting excellent buoyancy, looking set to last a good few weeks before the level goes down, and with a low proportion of nasty fauna, republicans and cynics, cruising around in the depths to cause an unpleasant shock to happily bathing revellers.  (However, another such storm flood, designated ‘Ollie’, is predicted for next month and its nature and effects are as yet quite uncertain.  Some experts foresee danger for foreign visitors venturing into the alcoholic quarters of cities at night if the country does not win ‘its’ ‘fair share’ [two sets of inverted commas needed there] of gold medals in the Olympics)

   This column is not close to the person at the epicentre of the current upsurge.  Our own occasions for working with her have been rare and entirely formal, but it is obvious to all except the most ill-intentioned that in the performance of her office she has virtues of integrity and consistency that would be wonderful assets in a civil servant (and a crippling handicap in a political career), as well as admirable self-control when confronted with frauds and fools to an extent that seems beyond the mental horizon of the country’s footballers.  Nevertheless, after sixty years in the same job with an essentially unchanging round of duties considerably more demanding than most realise, how can there not be a desire to get away from it all?  No one should be excessively surprised therefore if, in the near future, a Private Secretary, finding that HM is not yet busy at her desk at 7.35 am makes enquiries, which result in a Lady of the Bedchamber gliding respectfully but anxiously into the room with a cup of coffee, where she will discover that the hump in the bed is a cunning construction of pillows and clothing, and that there is a chain of knotted sheets leading from one of the bed’s legs through an open window and down four stories to the flower beds outside.

Editor’s footnote: In the meantime British royalists should remember that an excellent card they can play against anti-royalist snipers is to point out that if the country had had a republican constitution when Blair finally came half-good on that undertaking to let Gordon take over, he would certainly have manipulated himself into the post of president.

Extension of cell life

In Nature Communications French scientists from the Institut Pasteur have announced an astonishing discovery.  They have found that stem cells in mammalian bodies can survive the death of the organism as a whole, by going into a state not totally different from hibernation.  They have found it possible to revive such cells after an interval as long as 17 days.  When revived they function as do other stem cells, which implies a great deal; to date the scientists have been able to manipulate them into becoming liver cells and even, with cells from a deceased woman of 95, fully functioning muscle.  Medical scientists of course are delighted. but elsewhere this remarkable research has met diverse reactions.

   Thus, some have found the discovery worrying.  For example, a statement issued on behalf of a national association of Directors of crematoria stated that while they warmly applauded advances in medical science, they were concerned that the general public might draw unhelpful conclusions in this instance, with a resulting downturn in the use of their facilities.  On the other hand, indifference was the reaction of gun dealers consulted for their views.  “Listen feller.  This babe’ll fill a bad guy so full of metal in 8.5 seconds you’d need a crane to stand him up.  Anything happens after second 9, don’t figure,” genially commented Jay, owner of Blastawarama in Sniggsville, affectionately patting his currently most popular submachine gun.  A wealthy businessman contacted by telephone in Hongkong was also unmoved.  While denying that he was ‘in the game’ himself he remarked that many of his acquaintances had contracts with private institutes where numbers of frozen embryos developed from stem cells which they had donated were already held with a view to completing the cloning process as and when it should become desirable for tax, marital, or other reasons.

   It appears, however, that insurance agencies may take a favourable interest.  According to one executive the discovery may obviate the need for some pay-outs on life insurance.  “If, for instance, a contract covers the period to January 15th in a given year, and the customer is run over by a tank on January 1st, legal opinion may be able to hold that he should not be regarded as fully dead until after the expiry of the contract.  Depending of course on how he meets his unfortunate end.  If, for instance, he fell into the tiger’s cage at the zoo, and was eaten, then I think the new discovery would have no relevance.”

   The greatest enthusiasm was shown by law enforcement agencies in countries with no limit on the length of prison sentences.  (Nb several former soldiers who took part in a Guatemala massacre of 1982 have recently each been sentenced to 6,060 years which is thought to be a record for the Americas.)  Several authorities have already asked for further details.  One mid-west state deputy governor described the news as a ‘wonderful step forward towards a  fairer and more just society’.  “In the past far too many criminals were able to cheat justice by dying before their proper term was served.  Now, we shall be able to extract stem cells from their body, clone these and when they have reached the age of criminal responsibility put them back in the slammer until they have done the full time of their sentence.”

Remember the cane toad!    Remember the Aral Sea?

How many now remember the hitherto unknown species of microbe spotted swimming to the rescue of BP in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010?  A huge force of miniature sea-going cavalry, they were going to dispose of the great oil spillage by eating most of the oil, news which served as a rather flimsy windbreak against the gathering storm of criticism.  After that, the story largely sank out of sight (which according to other investigators sceptical about the microbial cavalry is what actually happened to most of the oil) but in areas known to few journalists the story has been proliferating ever since.  Remarkably little is solidly agreed, except that some scientific jiggery-pokery was used to manipulate these tiny oleovores into useful existence.  This leaves worrying questions.  What will they eat when they cannot find any more oil, where, and whose?  What else might wriggle out of these scientists’ test-vats?  Will our boys be ready with warheads full of oil-hungry bacteria aimed at the oilfields of whoever may currently be the enemy before they send some to us?  And, the big one ever lurking in the background, could this turn out to be a case of last year’s neat solution producing next year’s disaster?

Sayings of the month

No genetic trace of jewish or gypsy ancestors (translated wording on a certificate issued by Nagy Gén Diagnosztika, Budapest, for a member of the Hungarian parliament, belonging to the Jobbik party)

Let me make one thing clear.  In the face of the crisis facing our friends in the eurozone both the Government and the Bank of England are united in their determination to do whatever it takes to keep as far away from it as we can (words of a British prime minister speaking on condition of anonymity since he doesn’t want the trouble that will follow if this sentiment emerges in the media)

Mediocrity must not become the standard.  (Frau Merkel responding to the French proposals for yet more renegotiation of bail-out agreements, since she doesn’t give a fig about what emerges in the media)

I can categorically deny that we have agreed to a plan to fill the swimming pool with Coca Cola for the benefit of paying customers as part of the celebrations at the end of the Games (statement by infuriated representative of a rival drinks company that cannot be named until 2034 under rules stipulated by sports officials and allowed to pass without apparent resistance by a government suffering from severe weakness of the knees)

disagreements and criticism welcome, especially if ill-founded

honesti honorque floreant