Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Cake, Science, And Very Large Rocks

The European Week of Astronomy and Space Science conference has a big problem : how do you pronounce the acronym ? E-wass ? Ewe-ass ? Eh-wass ? E.W.A.S.S. ? Nobody knows. The American equivalent, the American Astronomical Society meeting, has no such difficulty, being universally accepted practise to call it the "double A S".

Anyway the two meetings are pretty much the same thing : an enormous travelling circus that meets once (twice for the AAS) per year in order to squash as many astronomers as possible into a small room, in the hope that they'll somehow merge and form a single, gigantic super-astronomer that will wander around the place, crushing small buildings beneath its mighty feet and making witty remarks about astronomy. Something like that, anyway.

What EWASS actually is, or was this year, is 1200 astronomers wandering around the Charles University Faculty of Law building eating lots of cake and wondering which session they should go to.

Like most buildings in Prague, it's quite an impressive place from the outside. Inside it's nice enough, but certainly showing its age.

I found a kindred spirit at the SKA booth, complete with an etched glass cube of the antennas and
a Google Cardboard display of the telescope site.
The main foyer and many lecture rooms are fine, but some of the others have wooden desks which look like they haven't been replaced since the 1940s. As a conference venue it was functional - plenty of space - but not especially comfortable. Most of the time this wouldn't matter, but temperatures were generally 27 - 33 C and the humidity was high. There were no ceiling fans, let alone air conditioning, so it wasn't always particularly pleasant.

Fortunately the conference freebie was a hand fan, which was even more practical and useful than the USB fan at the ALMA meeting last year. Without it I might have collapsed. As it was, I only left one session because the heat was unbearable (and it wasn't especially interesting anyway).

For a large conference the schedule was pretty good, with two half-hour coffee breaks and 90 minutes for lunch. That's about what you get as standard in a regular working university day, maybe even more. Of course the penalty is that for the rest of the time you're listening to so many talks you can practically feel your head expanding and have to continuously fight the fear that it might become too heavy and fall off. Conferences are draining. Unfortunately, the coffee "breaks"* were really only coffee - the tea being so undrinkable that I couldn't drink it - though they did provide a tremendous amount of (mostly very good) cake. Lunch, alas, was something to be endured rather than enjoyed, so a diet of mainly sugary carbohydrate for a week (in mostly > 30 C heat) is not all that brilliant.

* They're breaks from the talks, but often this is when the most important discussions happen.

At some point the heat and humidity exploded in a respectable-sized thunderstorm, which freshened things up considerably.

In terms of the conference itself, the content was of a high standard. There was nothing Earth-shattering, but there were very few low-quality talks. There were hundred and hundreds of posters - too many, really, and they didn't seem to be particularly well-organised so I didn't pay them much attention.

The highlight was definitely a prize lecture by a certain Bengt Gustafsson on "Looking in other directions". Mainly it was focused on the importance of risky projects and the need to avoid the "publish or perish" culture which prevents more controversial research from being funded, but he introduced it with a wonderful story of an early Danish expedition to observe a transit of Venus. Delivered with an upper-class English accent with a tinge of Danish, and a palpable sense of gleeful enthusiasm, it featured the wonderful little section : "And what did they see coming over the horizon ?  [Dramatic pause, eyes widen] English pirates !". It was wonderful, like listening to someone who could be a professional narrator on children's storytime programmes.

This is not that prize talk, it's the opening ceremony, but it's the same room.
I gave a short talk on the usual dark galaxy stuff, plus those hydrogen streams I've been on about occasionally. It seemed to go pretty well, it had a few questions and I'm told I'm been headhunted for a collaboration with someone in the audience I didn't meet. So that's nice. Academically it was a decent conference, though it would have been better if there are been less overlap between sessions on similar topics.

Socially the conference had an unusual number of planned events, many of them being weirdly timed to occur during the conference itself. That's very strange. Although many people often tack on a few days of holiday to conferences in nice locations, it's very strange indeed for conference organisers to plan social trips that occur at the same time as the talks. People generally like to at least pretend they're going for the conference rather than a trip at the university's expense. If you're going to skip a talk, at least admit you're being a naughty little astronomer, you rascal.

Having seen everything in Prague already, the only social outings I signed up for were the welcoming "cocktail" (it wasn't a cocktail, but it was nice) and the concert/dinner. I got invited to the student event on a boat too, but I couldn't go because I'm not a student (and at the welcoming drink they were being very strict with tickets, so it didn't seem like a good idea to boatcrash it).

The welcoming drink was nice enough, with a riverside view on a sunny evening, but I completely and utterly won the concert seating lottery. Guess who had third row dead centre with no-one in the front two rows ? Yeah bitches, me. That's who.

Taken without zoom.
And it was almost literally a lottery. I found out later that the conference bags were given the tickets before the name badges were distributed, which explains why the great and the good were given seats toward the back and off-centre while muggins here got the best seat in the motherfrakin' Rudolfinium. In your FACE, Martin Rees*.

* Well he was there for part of the conference, but I've no idea if he went to the concert or not.

Afterwards there was a conference buffet dinner, which was extremely nice but I mostly had to stand up for that one, rubbing it in the noses of everyone who would listen about how I'd benefited from this totally chance arrangement.

At most small conferences hardly anyone knows each other, which forces people to mingle. That's OK, because everyone's in the same situation. At large conferences this is unnecessary. In this case there was a large contingent from Cardiff and various other associates, which meant that I was kept busy every evening except one. Unlike visitors, who stay in hotels, this means no chance to do the basic little housekeeping chores that suddenly seem much more important when you can't do them. Little things like washing up, hoovering, buying toilet paper. Couple that with a 12-hour day and by the end of the week things become a little bit Father Jack.

But after the conference ended there wasn't much time to collapse, because I had a friend visiting almost immediately afterwards and a 90-minute public talk on the Wednesday. Since this was almost entirely visual-based, with almost no text on any of the slides, it had to be practised in order to avoid me collapsing into a nervous, quivering wreck and scraped off the floor of the lecture theatre using a very sharp scrapey thing. Spending 1.5-3.0 hours per day loudly telling jokes to an empty room is not much fun at all really. The best I could hope for is that it might annoy my rather irritating neighbours, who have developed the habit of performing very loud sex acts at weird, unpredictable hours.

My friend arrived early on Tuesday morning, and since my talk was scheduled for Wednesday evening, we didn't do very much except walk around Prague for the first couple of days. Ian is currently making a mockery of the notion that technological unemployment will make our lives a dreary misery, currently being between jobs on a mission to explore the entire freakin' world for some reason. Apparently this is a fun thing to do and "better than staying in !_@*ing Cardiff", although I disagree. Having already been to Florence and Luxembourg, Ian's next port of call is 'murica-land. I'll be joining that for the eclipse-based section, but Ian is staying for a full six weeks.

I normally keep other people pretty well anonymous - if they crave internet-based glory they can start their own damn blog - so why am I harping on about Ian ? Because 35.4 seconds after returning to Cardiff from Trumpsville, Ian is off on a sponsored trek to Machu Piccu. He's doing this on account of his sister, who made a very moving (and funny) documentary before succumbing to cancer last year. You can watch the documentary here, but much more importantly, you can sponsor Ian's effort's here. Any doubts about whether you should donate or not ? Let me put those to rest.

On Wednesday the talk proceeded as planned. The last time I gave a seminar at the Charles University, it was a somewhat... trying experience. The most reaction I got from the audience was a light chortle, while the rest of the time it was like talking to a brick wall. It's very hard to remain focused when the audience are barely reacting at all to jokes that every other audience has previously LOLed at. Afterwards I was told - and I quote - that it was "one of the best we've ever had."

People are weird.

Anyway, this talk was largely aimed at participants of a high school Astronomy Olympiad, but also open to the public. So the audience was neither compelled to be there nor feeling constrained by the presence of their lecturers (as I'm told is the case for the university students, for some reason - the Czech Republic is a very hierarchical place). Thankfully, after the weeks of preparation (tens of hours on practise alone) this was a success. People laughed loudly at the correct moments. The 3D movies were a success. The data cube did its thing. A good time was had by all. Hurrah !

Also featuring Grumpy Cat, Captain Picard memes, Monty Python, Star Wars, James Bond and a wizard. But not necessarily in that order.
But enough about that. We stayed up until sometime after 1am having a celebratory drink, then got up at 6am (or something) in order to catch the train to the interesting rock formations at Cesky Raj. Apparently it's important to go early in case the rocks decide not to show up as they're nervous around people. That stage of the proceedings wasn't as bad as you might think. For me, the worst part by far was the second part of the train ride.

The first part was an uneventful couple of hours to Turnov; the second part a horrendous 15 minutes to the park itself. The second train is somewhat infrequent, but saves you about an hour of walking. Consequently it's rammed. And then more people get on. More and more crowd on, even if there's no room and they have dogs the size of horses and /or bicycles (also the size of horses), giving them plenty of options to get to Cesky Raj using their own vehicles but nooo, let's ram everyone on, even if that means putting the bikes in the toilet. Oh how wonderful. And they were loud people. By far and away the loudest Czechs I've ever heard, especially one rather large man who thought that deodorant was something that happened to other people. So I spent most of that short but horrible period trying to figure out where my feet should go with a fat man's armpit waving dangerously close to my face while he shouted very loudly to everyone nearby something incomprehensible but apparently related to cucumbers, which he was passing around from a large blue bucket together with salt and pepper. People ate them raw, salted to taste.

I swear I'm not making this up. I'd have taken a photograph, except a) I do not deal well with large smelly shouty crowds in cramped conditions early in the morning and b) it was impractical to fumble in my bag for the camera.

Once we finally escaped this mobile hell-hole, almost the first thing we saw were fields of wheat. Cue Theresa May jokes.

The next thing we saw was lots and lots of trees.

We were wandering more or less and random with no map to speak of save Google, which isn't good in forests, but as we kept wandering we started to see more rocks and less trees.

Eventually we wandered back on to the main path and soon we saw some proper rocks.

The weird rocks are impressive enough that you can spend long minutes just staring at them and imagining what would happen if you pushed your worst enemy of the top... err, anyway, we spent a long time looking at the weird tall rocks. They're well worth a visit, even if they take about 2 hours from Prague. But don't set off at 6am, because that's very silly. We didn't see all the rocks by a long shot, but we spent pretty much the whole day wandering around. And unlike just about everything in Prague, rocks are free to look at and don't incur an extra fee for photographs.

Then we stopped looking at the rocks and went back to Prague where we found an amusing bar with worried-looking beer tanks.

The next day we'd originally intended as a trip to the Punka caves, where you can take an underground boat ride. But we couldn't do that because it was fully booked a week ahead of time, so we went to some other caves in Hranice instead.

We decided to leave at like 5am* because Hranice is such a well-known popular tourist destination* that we desperately wanted to beat the crowds*. When we arrived, we were somewhat disappointed to find that the town was a bit of a dump*.

This is NOT the train station we arrived at, which was much larger.

This run-down, post-Soviet locale had clearly seen better days. Gangs of violent youth roamed the streets* molesting old ladies* while feral cats hissed at us in a menacing fashion.*

Actually it was quite nice. There's not much to see in the town, though its main square is pleasant enough (except for the temperature, which was so high that the entire town burned down*).

* The authenticity of these statements is somewhat open to dispute.

The caves were good, though I don't have any photographs. Unusually they were formed partly through hydrothermal processes, and contain many hydrothermal stalagmites that look like little volcanoes. Some of the caves contain lethal levels of CO2 - one of them is even called the Cave of Death. And they're not fooling around either - a candle, descending on a wire, is snuffed out just a few feet below the level of the visitor path. This is definitely not somewhere you want to ignore the no entry signs.

(I've tried Googling to find out what would happen if you did breathe in concentrated CO2 - the most common answer seems to be that you'd die a horrible death in a few breaths, though a few misguided individuals seem to think it would just make you cough.)

Across the river from the caves lies the Hranice Abyss (cue Nietzsche and Brexit references, there helpfully being another field of wheat nearby), one of the deepest known underwater caves in the world. Just how deep it is, nobody knows. Robots have gone down 400 m from the surface of the water, which is about 70 m below where visitors can stand. Rather satisfyingly, it's possible to throw a rock from the viewing platform and have it hit the surface of the water.

Continuing the rather steep ascent upwards leads to a nice viewing point overlooking the river, where you can sit on an odd-looking statue and watch the world go by.

Then we went back to Prague and spent the next day being extremely lazy.

The day after that, we planned to go to Cesky Krumlov ("the jewel in the south-western Bohemian spa triangle" - how's that for a claim to fame !) but the rather strange man at the bus depot told us this wasn't possible, at least not if we wanted to get back the same day. Which we did. This was because there was a major film festival happening, but I suppose that's what one should expect for the jewel of the south-western Bohemian spa triangle. I imagine the situation in the north-western Bohemian spa triangle must be even worse.

A hasty rethink and we zipped off to Kutna Hora. Since I've been there before, there's no need to describe it again. Though it was good to see the town in sunny weather this time, even if it was once again so hot that birds were dropping out of the sky on account of having caught fire. The little feathery meteors don't show up well in the photographs, but they were definitely there.

It should also be noted that inside the cathedral are statues of St Wenceslas and St Ludmilla apparently having a dance-off. Kutna Hora's Got Talent !

Then we went back to Prague and continued being lazy until Ian left at 3am on Tuesday morning, because Ryan Air sucks donkeys. And then I collapsed, which is more or less what I've been doing ever since.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Ask An Astronomer Anything At All About Astronomy (XLI)

Various reasons have conspired for the unusually long delay since the last AAAAAAAA, and will likely do so for at least the next couple of weeks, but this little addition pushes the total of questions up to 351.

1) Would Star Wars have been better if there was an astronomer on board the Millennium Falcon ?
Err... this depends heavily on your definition of better. Let's just say it would have been different.

2) Why are these stars moving on a weird W-shaped path ?
They're drunk.

3) What do you think of Planety McPlanetface ?
Very little unless it owes me money.

4) What makes the Northern Lights appear green ?

5) How many planets have we found that can support life ?
I dunno, how many do you need ?

Sunday, 25 June 2017

In Theory

Of all scientific terminologies, "theory" is surely the most misunderstood. I've covered this before many, many times, but somehow I don't feel I've quite done it justice. Let me attempt to put this right. First the short version, the one you can link to if someone on the internet is shouting, "it's only a theory !!!" and you want them to shut up and go away.

Theory : Too Long Didn't Read Version

Sorry people, "theory" is ambiguous and has many meanings. It's context dependent. Yeah, I know, that's a right bugger for arguing on the internet. Alas, the notion that a theory has a very specific meaning to scientists (e.g. a model that's been especially well-tested) is simply not true at all, and even if it did, that wouldn't mean that everyone else is being an ignoramus by using it to mean something different.

A theory is a model that describes how the world works... but not all theories are equal. Sometimes it's fine to say "it's only a theory", sometimes it isn't. This depends on the degree of testing which the theory has survived. It's not about "theory", it's about the prefix "only". Rough guide :
  • "Anyway, the round earth / evolution / relativity / dark matter /  is only a theory" - people who say this tend to be ignorant savages who live in huts and sacrifice goats to avoid angering the Great Duck. I've tried to place those examples in a rough order of how well-tested they are, but in all those cases, saying, "it's only a theory" is directly equivalent to saying, "I'm a pillock."
  • Something you or your mates just thought up of the top of your head. As in, "You know me mate Dave ? I've got this theory right, that he's actually, like, secretly a ninja. Just a theory though." That one mostly definitely is only a theory, because it isn't well-tested at all.
So, calm down people. Take your time and consider carefully how well-tested your theory is. If it gets a lot of things right - even if it also gets some things wrong - then you can't say "it's only a theory", because that ignores how well it does. In general, forget whether or not the theory makes any sense to you and concentrate on the results. But if the theory only explains a few things and not very well, and gets a lot of things wrong, or hasn't been tested at all... then you can absolutely say, "it's only a theory". Or better yet : it's only a model.

The only other detail is that someone might say, "it's only a theory" when what they really mean is, "it's not a fact". That's a bit tougher. Gravity isn't a theory, it's a fact - but models of how gravity works (like relativity) are very definitely theories, not facts. Similarly the spherical shape of the Earth is a fact, but we don't know its shape with infinite precision, so in that sense it's also a theory. And we know with certainty that evolution happens, even if much remains unknown about genetics. So if you want to say, "it's not a fact", it very much depends on which theory you're discussing.

That's really all there is to it. You may stop reading at this point if you like. But if a more detailed analysis is needed, read on. There's nothing new here for regular readers, I just want a go-to post. I've got this theory that collecting these ideas together may be useful...

Monday, 12 June 2017

Don't Worry, Everything Is Still Awful

Just before the election I wrote about how awful the UK political situation is. Four days later and nothing much has changed. If you're a Tory supporter, I'm afraid you're in a bad way. There isn't much I can offer to console you, except that for now, you've won. It's a bad win though, and very likely a Pyrrhic victory. Sorry about that. Actually, I might have been sorry with Cameron's government in charge, if only a little bit. But with May and her vicious screaming horde ? Not so much really, I was lying about that. Sorry. Actually that was a lie too. Sorry.

If you're anyone else (except for a few hard-right fringe parties) then I'm afraid, well, first of all...

The good news is that May is not long for this political world. May, as we've seen with increasing frequency in the last few weeks, is not a creature that does well under pressure. She has a habit of turning into a robot and giving wildly inappropriate answers to questions; not everything is about being strong and stable and very little of anything is about running through fields of wheat. Oh, she likes to talk tough, but actually being tough means giving sensible answers under pressure, not merely being able to deliver stock phrases without bursting into tears. That's just not good enough.

Pressure on May is about to increase dramatically. It's already ramped up because of the loss of the Tory majority. And as I said some time back, May called the election not merely out of opportunism, but out of desperate opportunism. She couldn't cope with the pressures of the reality of Brexit and the threat of indyref2 so instead of trying to negotiate her way out of it - the sign of a truly tough character - she went the way of the desperate and rolled the dice.

With strange irony, the election has indeed (unexpectedly) removed the threat of indyref2 - but it hasn't helped ease the pressure on May at all. Her slim majority has gone completely. This wouldn't necessarily be so bad except that the whole election campaign revolved around being "strong and stable"* and the farcical notion that the stronger the mandate of the UK PM to govern the UK, the better deal we'd get in a Brexit negotiation. Quite how that was ever supposed to work escapes me. And worse, virtually all of the other parties are now firmly opposed both to Tory ideologies - not merely policies but the deeper perception of what it is the Tories actually want - and May's personal dictatorial "strong and stable" style.

* May, they say, is a prisoner of number 10. Who's her jailer ? Easy : herself. She's a victim of her own sloganeering, constrained by her promise to be strong and stable when what's needed is to be intelligent and flexible.

That leaves the DUP, a bunch of awful people that no-one's ever heard of  - and those that have heard of them rightly detest them. Even May, horrid character though she is, is only trying to deal with them because she has no choice. It may sound strange to suggest that a deal with the Tories and these archaic lunatics is a good thing for modern progressives, but it is. Everyone instantly hates the DUP, and already they're not kowtowing to the Tory machine as expected. May is a lousy negotiator and always has been.

Furthermore, if you're worried about the damage the DUP will do to British politics, don't be. Brexit succeeded only (in part) because there had been years (decades, even) of widespread far-right anti-foreigner rhetoric in the popular press. But climate change denial or promoting creationism ? There's no appetite for that. The worst they'll do is generate a debate in Parliament, and we'll quickly find that virtually everyone is opposed to their assorted insanities. Their policies have no support, and nothing will come of nothing. They are toothless non-entities*. All they'll do is make the Tories much more unpopular.

* Just for good measure, it seems that they won't be able to vote on most issues because of the recent decision on English Votes for English Laws, though this needs to be verified.

And then the Brexit negotiations start, wheee ! Or at least they're supposed to. If they're delayed then that further weakens May, ratcheting up the pressure. If they're not delayed than we still go into them with a bunch of undiplomatic morons in charge who think that diplomacy is about being "strong and stable" for some reason, only now we'll do so with far greater doubts that even the crazy British public actually want the hard Brexit that May loves so much. Again, ratcheting up the pressure. Compared to dealing with the tiny bunch of lunatics that constitute the DUP, dealing with the large and largely sane group of leaders of 27 other countries is going to be way, way, way more difficult.

May's going to break, whatever she says. My guess is sooner rather than later - certainly long before the DUP have any chance to destabilise the peace process. That situation is a self-limiting problem by virtue of its sheer awfulness. I hope you enjoyed that comforting message, for alas...

Everything I've said about Corbyn remains true and is even reinforced. Declaring that you're "the real winner" of the election doesn't make it true, any more than May's repeated professions of certainty and stability make them true. Moral winner ? Maybe. But you want to actually form a government ? Well when you and all the other parties combined still don't have enough to reach a majority, that's cute.

Doing better than expected doesn't equate to doing well. Labour lost this election and lost it badly. Yes, they gained seats. Yes, that gain was even respectable - but it was still, ultimately, modest. Cheering in celebration is plainly ridiculous. In any other situation the leader would have apologised and resigned. Guess what ? Exactly as I bloody well told you would happen, Corbyn won't go. He sees every minor gain as a resounding endorsement of his ideologies and simply ignores every setback no matter how difficult.

Nor does any deal with the DUP somehow exonerate New New Labour's links with the IRA. It makes the Tories hypocrites, yes. But it doesn't magically make it OK to hang out with your terrorist pals you blithering idiots - it just means everyone is equally awful. Or perhaps not equal, since the allegations against the Corbynites go back a long time and are somewhat personal, whereas the Tories are accused of doing a deal because they have no choice.

I know many of you would like to believe that Corbyn is a basically decent chap who's misunderstood, misrepresented by the media and occasionally makes a bit of a blunder. But he isn't. His mistakes are chronic and follow a predictable pattern : going on the warpath when threatened then doing absolutely nothing when secure; pig-headed stubbornness; a near-total refusal to admit mistakes and a total inability to compromise. Not to mention a complete blindness as to the importance of the biggest political issue of the day, an unbelievably sanctimonious attitude and far too many friends who seem like a toxic mixture of the stupid and the evil.

See, I would love to believe that Corbyn really is taking Labour in a bold "new" direction back to the 1970's. Or rather, I'd love to believe that Corbyn's New New Labour would really deliver a strategy that makes a real, significant difference to the poor and lower earners and just be a generally good thing. I would love to believe that cancelling Trident would magically make the world a better place. And I would really, really, really love to be wrong about Corbyn and his acolytes, I really would.

But being anti-establishment isn't automatically a virtue. And attacks from the Tories are not automatically wrong. The thing about science is - and I've said this bajillions of time - we try to attack results that agree with what we expected. Confirmation bias is very well known : not only do you criticise things you don't like more strongly, but you also don't criticise things you want to be true. Individual scientists don't always do that, but the scientific collective is pretty efficient at finding problems. Sometimes it takes a while to be noticed, but there's almost always someone prepared to say "nope".

Science doesn't have partisan elements, though for sure academia does. Politics, on the other hand, is almost entirely driven by partisanship and tribalism; bias runs rampant with barely any consideration for plausibility. So I implore you, for all the good it will do, forget what you want to be true and consider what might actually be true. Honestly, if Corbyn was a Tory, most of my readers would be demonising the hell* out of him right now.

* Makes sense, right ?

Prediction is a fool's game in politics, so here goes. May will quit, probably within 1-2 months, 3-4 maximum. I doubt she'll be forced out - the reason we didn't see any credible Tory figures at the last election contest was because they know how screwed we are thanks to Brexit, and fully realise that the premiership would not be a chance for glory right now. No, May will go because she'll break under pressure, and we'll get someone else of comparable idiocy to May instead. None of the saner Tories will step up to the gallows right now.

Corbyn won't quit because he too is a bloody fool who doesn't understand that being PM will neither be good for him or the country. Could he win the next election if May does quit ? I wouldn't assume so despite recent polls - Labour still have a mountain to climb. But if he does, then a lot of people are going to find out quite quickly just what a colossal mistake they've made. Disillusionment is going to be much bigger and more rapid than with Blair, as they realise that Corbyn's cabinet have neither the skills nor the motivation to actually enact any of their promises, much less any way to find the money to pay for everything.

And emerging from the cloudy fog of British politics comes the sea-cliff of Brexit; not one we'll fall off but one we'll crash headlong into, the ship of state dashed against the stony rocks of contempt for reasoned arguments as we're held in the grip of the ideologies of well-meaning intentions. Corbyn has shown great strength and stability in resolutely not caring about Brexit; May at least realised the seriousness of situation - Corbyn is either too stupid not to understand what's happening or simply doesn't care. All those arguments we've heard about the dangers of Brexit - like it or not, they're still there. All the election has done is made us all ignore them for a while and live in the happy cloud cuckoo land of blissful ignorance where we pretend it doesn't really matter. Well it does matter, and having an apathetic idiot at the helm is not going to end well.

A Corbyn administration will be an absolute farce, far, far worse than the current government because it will be delivered not on a message of dreadfully dull stability and competence, but renewal and hope. Corbynites are going to have their dreams shattered. If the Tories are playing with fire by getting into bed* with the DUP, then Labour are in no better shape by playing with the fires of Marxism.

* Pro tip : don't play with fire in bed.

So take heart, people - everything is still awful, and it shows no signs of getting better anytime soon. We aren't even going to get a halfway competent Tory, let alone a sensible Labour leader. One way or another, we're just going to keep getting screwed.

(Possible escape route ? It's just possible that the Tories might have a sudden flash of intelligence and realise that, since the country didn't vote for a hard Brexit, they should elect a more intelligent, competent Remainer who would at least understand that diplomacy is about more than carrying a big stick. Such a person could destroy Corbyn without much difficulty. As for Labour I'm seeing less room for optimism - when they come to their senses they'll realise that since Corbyn is an unmovable despot, they'll have no choice but to split. Eventually, something might emerge from the ashes, but it's a long dark road for Labour full of soul-searching and mixed metaphors. Woohoo.)

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Everything Is Awful

During most elections I like to stay up late into the small hours of the morning hoping to know the result as soon as possible. I rather enjoy watching all the various silly graphics, hyperbolic speeches (does anyone else remember Peter Mandelson's, when he threatened that his enemies would taste his "inner steel ?" that was amusing...) and trying to make mountains out of molehills as every new result comes in. It's fun because I have a stake in the result and a clear preference for the winner but, even in the worst case, I don't think things will get more than "quite a bit worse" whatever the result. Mostly.

I don't think I'll be watching the coverage this time, because there's no realistic possibility of getting a result which isn't utterly awful. In fact I've never been less eager to know the result of an election.

Not being a Tory voter and anticipating that my readership isn't either, I don't see much point in dwelling on just how awful I find the current crop of Tory leaders and their policies. In short :

But, if more is needed, austerity is stupid. I guess it's OK if there's a short-term budget shortfall that needs to be balanced quickly, but as a long term plan for economic growth it just plain sucks. Sure, let's cut all the services that are of most use to the poor, because that'll incentivise 'em to get off their lazy backsides. Let's force 'em back to work, because slavery's OK if it's done to poor people. Let's discriminate against immigrants from poorer European countries because wealth is how we measure virtue, and then, because this totally makes sense, let's also discriminate against skilled foreign workers just because they're earning less than £35,000 a year and then - and this is the really clever bit - let's claim we're not xenophobic idiots ! Spectacular. While we're at it, let's bring back fox hunting for a laugh, piss off the entire European political bloc, suck up to Donald Trump, ban encryption and make pornography illegal just because screw you, that's why.

Inspiring stuff.

Then we've got the Labour party. Never did I think there would come a day when I looked at Labour and thought, "yep, they're just as bad". Now, let me clear - most of their policies are a damn sight better than the Tories. I like their anti-austerity approach. I like their pledge to cut university tuition fees, introduce a corporation tax and re-nationalise the railways. I don't think all of these are entirely practical (in particular I think their economic approach consists largely of wishful thinking) or that they'd achieve all of their goals as well as stated, but if it was a case of voting purely on policies, Labour would win hands down. Unfortunately, it isn't.

The problem for Labour is trust and ability. I've said all this before several times. Since no-one is listening, let me just summarise because when the faeces hit the proverbial fan - and they will - I'll point to this post and say "I FRICKIN' TOLD YOU SO YOU DUNCE SEE THIS ANGRY RANT AND LINKS THEREIN FOR DETAILS YOU BLITHERING IDIOT !". So at least I'll have that moment of bitter pleasure as the country goes the way of Atlantis.

Corbyn's policies - leaving aside the (credible) prospect of returning too much power to the unions and threatening us with nationwide strikes every five minutes - are ideologically opposed to much of what we've seen in British politics for the last many elections. At last, those of us of the same leanings thought on his election victory, a chance for us to have a real voice, to start something really new. What did he do ? After the first leadership election, sod all. He continued doing sod all throughout the Brexit campaign. He had a fantastic, unprecedented opportunity to start building a real social movement for a new type and form of politics, and he completely and utterly wasted it. The current Tory crop were never popular, but instead of taking advantage he just sort of sat there, shuffling his feet and presumably growing amusing vegetables in his allotment.

In fact he did nothing much of anything except when his "power" was under threat. MPs were threatened with deselection, his own innumerable rebellions dismissed as matters of principle whilst insisting that the party follow his line, resorting to "I was elected with a mandate of blah blah blah" as though it were some kind of insanely powerful magical chant that could ward off evil spirits and awkward questions whenever the least bit threatened. That his own MPs were all democratically elected as well, and had principles of their own, he cared not a jot. Did he even challenge the naked xenophobic racism of UKIP during the Brexit campaign ? Not really. Even UKIP's own MP seemed to be more concerned than Corbyn did.

He won another election campaign but remained oblivious to his wider unpopularity. He ignored losing a vote of no confidence from his MPs as though somehow that would all just go away once he somehow won the election for them (which he later described as "rigged" but vowed to win anyway - oh, yay).

Well, it won't. You can't form a government from people who hate you. It doesn't matter how much you want to, or even why they hate you, you can't. What we'll get is a shambolic, impotent farce, and Corbyn won't care. What makes me think so ? Because he hasn't shown a glimmer of caring at all thus far in his leadership career. He didn't care about building up support in opposition - he cared only about his own position. If you think he's magically going to turn into some kind of Action Man as Prime Minister and start rallying the troops, you're going to be disappointed.

Except... maybe there are some troops he will rally : his own hardcore lunatic supporters. Corbyn is no socialist who cares about helping people, he's a Communist who cares about getting his own way. Every pattern of behaviour thus far indicates so. His similarities to Trump are, I believe, remarkable given his diametrically opposed style and policies.

Furthermore, Corbyn's initially novel approach of not always knowing what to say and being a bit socially awkward has long since given to way to, at best, just another form of classic political bullshit and often is just textbook-standard bullshit without anything the least bit interesting about it. He used to at least basically acknowledge that he couldn't answer questions; now he just answers different questions instead. Straight talking honest politics ?  It looks oh so much like standard spin doctoring to me I find it hard to tell the difference. It isn't even straightforward honest bullshit, because with most politicians at least everyone knows they're just spewing political crap that you're not supposed to take seriously.

Everything about this man and his cabinet, to me, screams, "DANGER ! DANGER !". There are two possibilities. Either he's chronically incompetent and apathetic, in which case Labour really will be annihilated at the election next time if not sooner, or he's actually villainous. The latter possibility is something I give serious credit to. There are just too many associations with terror groups, too many admissions and - ironically - denials which are quickly refuted and sheer bullshitting about alleged and documented meetings, too many times of giving terrorists organisations far more than grudging respect but an open hand of friendship. Corbyn wasn't involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland at all, so why are we now expected to believe that he was ? He never had any role in the Middle East peace process either, so what's he doing calling Hamas his friends ?

I'd love to believe this was all just Tory propaganda on a par with the time the Daily Mail called Ed Milliband's father "the man who hated Britain". That instance was ludicrous. It was so outrageous it even got Ed "hell yes I'm socially awkward !" Milliband fired up, for crying out loud. But Corbyn and the IRA ? The man doesn't bat an eyelid. Similar accusations toward Diane Abbott - a woman who continuously seems like a high school student giving her first presentation with zero rehearsals but who somehow thinks the oratory isn't important in politics - and John McDonnell are met with similar pathetic denials. Getting them to admit that terrorism is wrong is possible, but by God it's like pulling teeth from a donkey*. This pattern of behaviour is too consistent and too broad-ranging among Corbyn's cronies to dismiss as entirely fanciful. The absolute best-case scenario is a widespread track record of massive, massive incompetence and really utterly shite judgement. The worst case scenario doesn't bear thinking about. In either case, the idea of straight talking honest politics is just so ludicrous it's becoming frankly offensive to common sense.

*Likewise, you can read whatever Brexit policy you like best if you cherry-pick the right bits from Corbyn's occasional statements and don't care about statistics.

That's why, then, I don't think this election represents the clear choice it's being made out to be. Even between Milliband and Cameron, two relative centrists, the choice was far clearer. But now we've got the Nasty Party on the right and the impotent lunatic communist party of the left. Whoopdee-frickin'-doo-dah. 

This is far worse than the situation of voting for someone I just don't like very much. Sorry people, but I'm not that stupid - I do recognise the difference between things I dislike and things I'm morally opposed to. And the current leadership of Labour scare the bejesus out of me - yes, every bit as much as the Tories. It's not a case of choosing the lesser of two evils or of voting for the Labour party so that the Tories don't get in. I despise the Tory party, but Labour have gone and made themselves into something just as bad. That it's a different kind of bad does not remedy the level of badness : I'm not voting for them, and you shouldn't either.

Suppose the associations of terrorist sympathies are just overblown fanciful nonsense, touch wood. Then you still have a track record of chronic incompetence in the shadow cabinet led by a man who pretty much ignored the biggest political issue of this generation because he has the lunatic idea that the EU is all about crushing people beneath the mighty boot of capitalism. You have someone in charge who was not the slightest bit interested in holding the government to account in opposition, i.e. in doing his frickin' job. What in the blazes makes you think this is going to end well ? It won't. Hasn't got a hope in hell.

Best case for a Labour majority : an incompetent shambles of such a scale that it will be child's play for the press to turn against them, yes, even if the Tory party remain as bad as they are now. You might be voting for them purely on the basis that you prefer Labour's policies and genuinely don't care about the leaders, but if you do that you are handing the Labour party its own destruction on a silver platter.

Best case for a Labour-led coalition government ? Scarcely much better. Corbyn doesn't even listen to his own MPs so there's not much reason to think he'll listen other parties. And, much as I respect certain members of the SNP, I'm not entirely convinced that people who think Scottish independence is a good idea could act as any real kind of moderating force anyway.

Best case Labour loss with a Tory victory (or somehow another coalition) ? The best outcome, not improbable, would be that the Tories get a very small minority that could be challenged by backbench rebellions so that they won't keep molesting the populace on a daily basis without some restraint. Corbyn could finally see sense and leave and hand the torch of party reform on to someone who's not a communist. Unfortunately that latter prospect won't happen unless Labour's loss is devastating (thus giving us five years of unopposed rule by the Grand High Witch), because Corbyn takes the smallest signs of approval as absolute endorsements by the whole country and has a long track record of refusing to leave when it's patently obvious even to members of the Monster Raving Loony Party that he needs to go. So that isn't going to happen.

Best case long term realistic solution ? Labour have to split. Take a lesson from the Simpsons :

But most likely, for the next five years everything political is just going to suck. Sorry people, but it will. We're screwed.


(Is there any ray of light at all ? Perhaps one. Now that he's got off his arse because his position is under threat, Corbyn has exposed the weakness and vulnerability of the Tory party. Austerity isn't popular and May doesn't look sensible. Left wing ideologies remain alive and well, but sadly, with tremendous irony, it looks very much as though Corbyn could inadvertently be the one to deal the death blow to left-wing politics.)