Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Song Thrush on Sliabh Mannan

Turdus philomelosFor many years, the only members of the thrush family I've seen around and about in Sliabh Mannan have been blackbirds (Turdus merulus) which are numerous and great contributors to the melody of spring and summer birdsong. I wasn't sure why other normally common members of the family were not present.

One year I remember spotting a single redwing (Turdus iliacus) and I half remember a possible fieldfare (Turdus pilaris), but both were fleeting glimspes and not seen again.

However in the last few years song thrushes (Turdus philomelos) have appeared in a cutting of the old Slamannan Railway which has now been converted into a path.

The sides of the cutting are quite steep and the old railway was a single track, so the cutting is effecively a narrow ravine which, although 600 feet above sea level, is sheltered from the worst of the strong winds which can sometimes blow across the moors. The price of shelter is that the sun only peers over the southern side of the cutting fairly late in the morning, but by spring the temperature is usually not too bad even in shade.

So I'm happy to see these recent arrivals settling in and I hope they'll stay around the area.

Friday, 13 April 2018

United States of Europe?

A United States of Europe has been advocated for centuries as a means of preventing European War. Even after the US Civil War demonstrated that war between federated states was by no means impossible, prominent European figures continued to argue for such a project.

The devastating wars of the twentieth century gave fresh impetus to the idea, and in the 1940’s the federalists effectively gained the upper hand over those who favoured looser associations such as the Council of Europe and EFTA. Recognising however that their ideas were well ahead of European pubic opinion, they agreed to a step by step approach towards “ever closer union”. The most recent step was the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, which effectively reintroduced the previously down-voted European Constitution under another name. It is under Article 50 of this constitution that the UK is currently negotiating withdrawal from the EU. A number of notable politicians have endorsed a United States of Europe in recent years.

However recent years have also seen a significant push back against the centralising tendencies of the European Commission in particular. Heavily indebted members of the Eurozone have been forced to accept major deflationary measures despite consequent heavy unemployment and popular discontent. Migratory waves have placed the open borders Schengen system under intolerably heavy political strain. Nationalist political forces have grown stronger in various member states.

To all of this the Brussels answer is more Europe, not less. For example the single currency won’t work properly without a common fiscal policy and to save the single currency from the pressures it has come under we must therefore remove the individual fiscal freedom of member states. The absence of a popular will for this is not considered an obstacle.

To some, European federalism is yesterday’s answer to yesterday’s problems. Aloof, remote government is no longer acceptable to populations who, in the information age, are far more in touch with alternative thinking on how their needs may be met.

This is not to say that the ideal of fraternity is not a fine one. However, if fraternity is to be realised, ways need to be found of making it compatible with liberty and democracy.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Why has Brexit proven to be so divisive?

Referendums are relatively recent innovations in the UK political system and we’re not really used 
to them. They involve voters far more directly in political choices than do UK General Elections.

In the latter, because of our first past the post electoral system it is normal for the winning party to poll less than fifty percent of the vote; since the Second World War the only government backed by more than half the voters was the 2010-15 coalition and that involved two parties. Nevertheless, as long as a government can command a majority in the House of Commons no-one makes much of a fuss and it is allowed to enact radical policy changes such as nationalisation or privatisation, to change criminal and civil laws or indeed to sign foreign treaties such as the one which took the UK into the EEC in 1973.

Note that this acceptance of General Election results comes despite the fact that the majority of voters didn’t vote for the government, whereas in both the 1975 and 2016 EU referendums the majority of voters by definition did vote for the winning outcome.

Note also that all political parties can and regularly do make undeliverable promises and predictions during elections in an attempt to persuade voters to vote for them. To hear some of the post-referendum angst you would think no politician had ever misrepresented the facts before, whereas in fact it is the normal state of affairs and everybody knows it.

A General Election is a very blunt instrument, since countless issues may influence votes and campaigns are usually very diffuse affairs. A referendum by contrast focuses on a single issue which is itself resolved into a single yes/no question. It is a great deal easier to decide how to vote on a single issue than to balance up the various party policies with which you agree and disagree in order to decide which party overall is the best (or least evil). In spite of this no-one ever suggests it’s too difficult for the uneducated to work out how to vote in an election.

You perhaps begin to see that objections are made to the results of referendums which would rightly be considered absurd if made in the context of General Elections. Why is this? I suggest because emotions are much more thoroughly wound up by referendums.

The Scottish independence referendum was, for many who experienced it directly, a profoundly unpleasant and divisive process. It was, in the main, divisive because of the emotions that were in play, not because of disagreements about facts. However much we may rationalize our instinctive position, human beings are strongly driven by visceral loyalties. This quickly turns unlikely allies into ‘us’ while former friends may suddenly become ‘them’. When emotions are involved, rational dialogue flies out of the window and we may resort to strong language to describe people who disagree with us. This is reinforced by modern social media echo chambers in which we only talk to people who do agree with us, while the best we may manage with our opponents is to talk at them and shout louder and use more rude words if they don’t seem to listen. But in General and Scottish Elections there’s always a political choice available to the electorate between parties who do and don’t support independence. Not so with the EU.

By the 2016 EU Referendum, the electorate had been denied any say for over forty years as the EEC steadily morphed into the EU and the EU in turn began to transition towards federalism. All major UK parties supported EU membership. They mainly selected candidates who agreed with party policy; hence the House of Commons came to be dominated by those favouring membership. The UK government even signed a rebadged Lisbon Treaty without the promised referendum on the EU Constitution. In short, Eurosceptics never had a chance at any stage to record their objections to the changes in the EU. This built up a great deal of alienation.

So take the emotional and unusual environment of a referendum, heavily season with decades of denial of choice, mix well with issues of identity and democratic principles of self-government, throw in deliberate attempts to stir up emotions on all sides and don’t be surprised when you get bitter division. Naturally this division makes it much harder to accept the outcome of a referendum than the outcome of an election. Before you know it, the losers are demanding another one, just like Scotland.

I strongly believe that a European political class which had a better understanding of the people they governed could have avoided all this unpleasantness and found ways to head off the least desirable EU developments. But elites don’t tend to think that way.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Did Scottish people originally come from Ireland?

Some of them did.

The name Scoti was originally a (4th century AD)Latin term for Gaels who raided Roman Britain from Ireland. By the 5th century these Gaels had formed a kingdom (Dalriada) which straddled the relatively narrow channel between north-eastern Ireland and south-western Scotland. However the country now known as Scotland was, in the Dark Ages, divided between these Gaels and several other races including Strathclyde Britons (Celts) forced north by the saxons(whilst other Celts remained in Wales and Cornwall), Norse moving south from Orkney and Shetland, Picts who occupied most of the central and northern highland areas and Angles moving north from Northumbria. A separate Viking group colonised Galloway. These disparate groups sometimes fought and sometimes didn’t.

Legend has it that in the mid-ninth century a Dalriadan king called Kenneth the Hardy was defeated in battle by the Picts, who were then attacked in the rear by a Viking army. The Vikings won, but as was their habit, then retired to the sea rather than holding the land. Kenneth’s army was now in better shape than the Picts and he was able to take over Pictish territory, becoming the first king of a united Alba (Dalriada + Pictland = just about all the mainland north of the highland line). Nowadays there is controversy about whether this amalgamation of the two kingdoms actually did occur by war or by dynastic marriage or some other process and not everyone considers Kenneth (MacAlpin) the first king of the unified land.

It took a lot longer for the lowlands (Strathclyde and the Lothians) to be incorporated into the kingdom and longer still for the Norse settlements in the isles of the west and north to be included too. Long before this process was complete it was complicated by the arrival of Normans who had already conquered England and who also invaded Ireland.

In the 17th century the colonisation process was reversed as protestants from Scotland were settled in Gaelic Ulster, which had been difficult to govern from the British side of the water.

The famine of the 1840’s set off more emigration from Ireland and significant numbers came to Scotland in a second wave of Irish settlement. Many got no further than Glasgow and surrounding west coast towns, most engaging in manual labour in the newly expanding industries.

So whilst numerous Scots today are of Irish descent, many others are descended from the various races that were amalgamated into the kingdom. These various strands are nowadays thoroughly mixed together anyway.

Monday, 19 March 2018

The American Narrative of the War of Independence

On Quora, questions are frequently asked regarding what the UK thinks about the American Revolution. They always tend to get the same answer, which is, essentially, that the UK doesn't tthink about it at all. Although it is fundamental to US history, for the UK it was just a small sideshow in the war with France that was fought, on and off, for around eight centuries. The American colonies at that time had no great value.

Various answers seem to want to re-fight the war. I don’t know why. But since I used to teach philosophy, here’s a philosophical answer. Or at least an attempt at one.

Firstly, there is a famous rule: the winners get to write the history.

When the winners do this, it’s very useful if they have a handy philosopher who can explain logically why everything they did was right and justified. For the American revolutionaries that philosopher was Thomas Paine. ‘Common Sense’ and others of his works are, I take it, the basis of what the questioners mean by The American narrative of the Revolutionary War.

Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.” - John Adams.

The problem with being a revolutionary is that real life is rarely as simple as they like to believe. Quite often revolutionaries end up not all that different to those against whom they rebel. Arguably the newly-independent Americans were every bit as good at imperialism etc. as the British rulers they threw out. That is a matter for better historians of the period than me.

But the problem with Paine was, he applied the same inexorable logic to everything, exposing the failings of US society’s continuing shibboleths with the same acumen as he’d exposed the failings of past ones such as monarchy. Slavery? Contrary to the rights of man. Formal religion? Subordination to an unelected priesthood is no better than subordination to an unelected king. And so on and so forth.

A philosopher who previously supported you and now embarrasses you is a really annoying creature. If you can’t answer him, it’s best to ignore him altogether. When Paine, an important US Founding Father, died in New York no more than a dozen people attended his funeral.

So perhaps a question of more relevance today would be, how consistently did (and does) the USA apply the philosophy of the Revolutionary War?

Monday, 19 February 2018

Red Returns

Here is something I hope may be found an inspirational photograph.

Six months after a sustaining a life-threatening joint-puncture injury in a field accident, after an operation to flush infection etc. out of the wound, (including doubts as to whether he would ever walk out of the equine hospital), box rest, convalescence, field rest and so on, here is Red under saddle again for the first time.

Just five minutes walking around the manege to remind him he's a big strong horse who can still carry his rider easily.

He really loved being back. It's good for his ego and prestige in the herd; working horses automatically get extra kudos and license to show off.

Now fingers crossed for no adverse reaction!

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Declining standards of argument

In an increasingly polarised society we are losing respect for freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is an essential ingredient of liberty, as political philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment showed clearly. Without freedom of speech, societal and scientific progress stalls, error is allowed to flourish unchecked, ideas cannot be examined to establish their truth or falsehood, the human capacity for logical reasoning atrophies and eventually, as J S Mill pointed out, even true beliefs become ritualised dead letters that we recite without understanding. Freedom of speech is thus essential to society. However, for individuals, freedom of speech is not always comfortable.

Mill set his limits to freedom of speech at the point where it was likely to cause serious harm to a person who was spoken about. For example it would be legitimate to criticise a person’s behaviour whilst speaking in a calm meeting but illegitimate to incite a mob outside that person’s house.

Let me give an example in order to show that protecting people’s feelings isn’t necessarily good even for them, let alone for society at large. In order to learn my trade as a writer I had to subject myself to a lot of criticism. At first I didn’t like it one bit. Not all of the criticism was even valid; some of it was upsetting or came as a shock. But the point is, some of it was right and necessary to my improvement; it took me a while to admit it, but without it I simply wouldn’t have learned enough to be professionally published. I could have protected my feelings by refusing to listen to anybody who didn’t see fit to praise me, but I would have unknowingly paid a great price. In fact I still need constructive criticism because I’m by no means perfect at what I do and I never shall be.

The crucial issue is, there is no right not to be offended. It has been truly pointed out that everyone is offended by something and you can’t ban everything. You do not suffer serious harm by having your feelings hurt. It may even do you good in the long run.

Today however various groups and institutions have mistakenly taken the view that certain sensitivities should be protected from criticism because of the sincerity with which they are held or some other superficially sound reasoning. In consequence we have opened the Pandora’s Box of trying to work out what might offend other people so as to be vicariously offended on their behalf. It is not infrequently discovered that such proxy offence-takers are far more sensitive than the directly-affected people themselves.

My point is, we have inculcated in recent generations the notion that giving offence is wrong, people who give offence are therefore wrong, and in order to prevent them from giving offence they should not be allowed to speak at all. In order to prevent them speaking it is deemed reasonable to employ abuse, shouting down and sometimes even violence.

An important point to remember is that a person who loses his temper loses the argument. It is much more effective to offer a rational refutation than to offer abuse. Assuming your opponent is rational, we are bound to conclude that if he had a rational counter argument he would use it. Therefore by resorting to abuse he shows he’s run out of good reasons to object to your point of view but can’t allow himself to admit it.

A second important point is that sometimes there is no perfect answer but there are several good answers which different people may genuinely prefer for different reasons. Not everyone who disagrees with you is necessarily wrong. Sometimes you must agree to differ.

A third important point to remember is that at some time or other you may be wrong. If your opponent proves his point through rational argument, you have gained a truth and given up a falsehood. You should be grateful to have learned something, not angry you lost. Needless to say this is a great deal easier said than done. But in the long run it’s truth that sets you free.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Rewiring the equine brain

A newspaper article took my eye today, about the capacity of the human brain to rewire itself after a brain haemorrhage.

It put me in mind of an episode from the later life of Pat (foreground), which I should perhaps record because I thought it so unusual.

When he was already quite old for a thoroughbred, Pat suffered a stroke one day while out in the field with his pals. We realised there was something wrong when he remained lying down when all the others gathered at the gate to come in to their stables.

I took a halter and went to see what was wrong. Though at that point he did not seem especially distressed, he was at first unable to get to his feet. Eventually he managed it with a struggle. Then I discovered he couldn’t walk. It took a long time to encourage him out of the field. He finally settled on a crabwise motion and seemed to have pretty well lost the use of his nearside hind leg. Once he was in his stable, other disturbing symptoms appeared.

The vet was promptly summoned. He prescribed medication and told us if the horse lived through the night he would survive. When I asked about the leg, he replied that the area of the brain controlling the nearside hind was gone beyond recovery, but another part of the brain would evolve the capacity to take over this necessary function. I’d never heard of anything like this.

Following the vet’s instructions we nursed Pat through the next couple of days in his stable and then took him out to the field. All symptoms other than the leg paralysis had now disappeared. He was even able to walk more or less in a straight line without weight-bearing on the damaged leg. However as soon as he saw his pals in the field he decided he would canter over to them. Because only one hind leg was pushing him forward he almost went sideways. This obviously surprised him, but since he could stand, walk and graze he was much happier out than in his stable.

To cut a long story short, things turned out exactly as the vet had predicted. The damaged leg had swollen and never went all the way back to its normal size and it also took a long time to heal the suppurating sore that developed on the cannon-bone while he was semi-incapacitated, but gradually he recovered the use of the leg and even the ability to canter in a straight line.

I have no idea who may be interested in this story, but I felt |I should tell it anyway.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Quora Question:
What are the differences between continental European and British mentality?

Questions inviting sweeping generalisations are all right if you don’t take them too seriously. For example, how much sense does it really make to argue that Swedes, Swiss and Spaniards all share a common European mentality, without even beginning to ask the same question of the heterogeneous British?
We might shed a very little light if we consider a few of the less outrageous over-simplifications regarding how the political, cultural and economic environments differ. Please forgive an element of English drollery in what follows. If you don’t detect any, please forgive its omission.
1. To begin traditionally, as they say, at the beginning. An island tends to be harder to conquer than part of the mainland. For almost a millennium (with the arguable exception of 1688) Britain has not succumbed to invasion. The Swiss have managed something similar by living in the inaccessible Alps, but foreign armies have marched and counter-marched over much of the rest of Europe. I suspect this may influence Europeans towards being more willing to co-operate with each other in order to avoid such things in future. The British are understandably less worried about something that never happens anyway.
2. Many European countries have for historical reasons adopted Roman Law. This system lays down in great detail what citizens may do and forbids everything else. It is far too much trouble for them to enforce this system in the same detail and they usually don’t. By contrast British Common Law assumes that the citizen may do anything the law doesn’t specifically forbid, and the relatively few forbidden things things have historically been policed quite rigorously. Sadly during The UK’s EU membership these two systems became mixed up, so we now have very detailed Romanesque regulations policed with typically-British vigour. This is the worst of both worlds and, amongst other calamities, makes it impossible for replica Edwardian sweetshops to sell humbugs by the quarter.
3. In the UK the Agrarian Revolution, including the Highland Clearances, preceded the political revolution we call democracy. Accordingly Britain has no numerically-significant peasant class. In much of Europe this process was temporally reversed, peasants got votes before losing their land and consequently numerous very small landholders still have a lot of political clout. Rural people (not to be confused with commuters) don’t think like urban people.
4. In the UK the Industrial Revolution also preceded democracy. As a result a well known German exile in the British Museum reading room wrote a book predicting the British capitalist system would be overthrown by the workers. However the British intelligentsia read the book and decided to forestall the revolution by inventing social democracy, passing Factory Acts, introducing compulsory education for all, social security, the NHS etc. As a result British workers decided they now had too much to lose and wouldn’t have a revolution after all but would leave that sort of thing to Europeans.
5. Despite point 3 above, Britain curtailed the power of absolute monarchy at, by European standards, a very early stage of its history, emphasising that government required the consent of the governed, or at least those of the governed who had lots of money. By contrast much of Europe has only recently emerged from the grip of totalitarianism or dictatorship and has relatively shallow democratic roots. From this side of the Channel it sometimes looks as though Europeans tolerate more nonsense than they should from the powers that be, with the honourable exception of French small farmers (see 3 above) who are even better than the British at not tolerating it.
6. The English invented Anglicanism so they could reject the authority of the Pope without having to be protestants either. As a result they became merchants instead and gave up religion except on Sundays. They pressed this reform on the rest of the UK with incomplete success. The rest of Europe however fought lots of wars about religion and hence take it very seriously.
The above are, as Jerome K Jerome might have said, a few idle thoughts of an idle fellow and I refuse to go to the wall for any of them.
Except the inalienable human right to sell humbugs by the quarter.